Day of child-justice reform, at Court & White House, leaves much yet to be done

barsMonday was quite a day for child rights in the United States.

It began in the morning, when the Supreme Court made clear in Montgomery v. Louisiana that its 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which had outlawed sentences of life without parole for persons who were under eighteen when they committed the crime of conviction, applied retroactively.

Writing for the 6-member majority in Montgomery, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy  stated that the 2012 decision in Miller

did more than require a sentencer to con­sider a juvenile offender’s youth before imposing life with­ out parole; it established that the penological justifications for life without parole collapse in light of ‘the distinctive attributes of youth.’ (p. 16)

As a result, he wrote, it established a “substantive rule of constitutional law,” the kind of rule that must apply even to persons whose cases otherwise would have been deemed final before the issuance of the 2012 decision.

according to Wall Street Journal reporter Jess Bravin, the decision granted “the possibility of freedom to as many as 2,500 inmates who otherwise would die in prison.”

Then, just 4 hours from midnight, the Washington Post published an op-ed in which President Barack Obama announced he had accepted recommendations in a new Department of Justice report; thus, inter alia, “banning solitary confinement for juveniles” in the federal prison system. The op-ed concluded on notes of promise:

In America, we believe in redemption. We believe, in the words of Pope Francis, that ‘every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.’

In that last sentence, notably, Obama quoted the September 2015 address to Congress in which Pope Francis called for abolition of the death penalty. The President’s op-ed continued:

We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives. And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger and worthy of our highest ideals.

A children’s day indeed.

Still, it must be noted that the solitary confinement ban applies only to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The DOJ report wrote at page 66:

The Department of Justice prosecutes very few juveniles, and so the Bureau is only responsible for the custody of a very small number of juveniles. As of December 5, 2015, the Bureau was responsible for 71 juvenile inmates, of which 45 were serving a term of incarceration, and 26 were under the supervision of the U.S. Probation Office.

Many thousands are in state correctional systems, and thus not affected by Obama’s decision.

And there is much yet to be done of a preventive nature, to help children from entering the juvenile justice system at all.

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