President Obama has taken a huge step towards dismantling our country’s culture of punishment. In a historic move, last week, President Obama used his executive authority to end the use of solitary confinement for youth in federal prisons, a welcome change for which youth justice leaders have long been advocating.
Citing research that suggests solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences–including suicide–the President declared that the practice “doesn’t make us safer [and is] an affront to our common humanity.”
His announcement came on the heels of The U.S. Supreme Court’s Montgomery v. Alabama ruling that its ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth also applied retroactively, making more than 2,000 incarcerated individuals eligible for resentencing or the possibility of eventual freedom.
These and other recent policy changes recognize that special treatment and consideration are warranted for youth in the justice system. This is important because research tells us that our brains don’t fully develop until our mid-twenties and youth are likely to engage in risky behavior, which they will eventually outgrow as they come to maturity. We also know that 90 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system have experienced childhood trauma and 70 percent have some form of mental health need.
I’ve written before about why it’s so important for our criminal justice system to prioritize prevention and opportunity, not punishment.