Despite his push for criminal justice reform this week, President Barack Obama’s inaction on juvenile justice reform has left Youth First! President Liz Ryan unimpressed.
“I continue to be disappointed by the fact that this administration hasn’t done anything on juvenile justice,” she told ThinkProgress. “They didn’t appoint a juvenile justice administrator for the entire first term. And even over the last two and a half years, after they appointed an administrator, I’ve seen very little.”
And as the sole juvenile justice expert speaking before the House Oversight Committee (HOC) on Wednesday, she’ll only have five minutes to convince members of Congress that the system is in dire need of reform. She won’t have enough time to talk about the thousands of kids languishing in harsh conditions like Kalief Browder did, so she plans to highlight three glaring travesties of the juvenile justice system: youth over-incarceration, the hundreds of thousands of young people prosecuted in adult courts every year, and gross racial and ethnic disparities.
“In the U.S. on any given day, there are nearly 80,000 youth in a detention or correctional facility,” she wrote in testimony submitted ahead of the HOC’s Hearing on Criminal Justice. There are “20,000 [youths] in juvenile detention centers; 54,000 youth are in youth prisons or other out-of-home confinement; 4,200 youth are in adult jails; and 1,200 youth are in adult prisons.”
Those kids suffer from the psychological impact of being removed from loved ones and their communities, fall behind in school, and are at an increased risk of being incarcerated as adults. Moreover, the abuse rate among incarcerated individuals is on the rise, from physical and sexual abuse to the excessive use of “isolation and restraints.”
Roughly 75 percent of youth are behind bars even though they are not considered public safety threats.
There is also the problem of prosecuting 200,000 to 250,000 children in adult courts every year — most of whom are not convicted for serious crimes. When they enter the adult court system, Ryan says, they face adult punishments, such as mandatory minimum sentences and no chance for parole. They are also stigmatized upon release, just as their adult counterparts are. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), locking juveniles up with adults is actually hazardous to public safety, because they are 34 percent more likely to commit a violent crime than their counterparts in juvenile facilities.
And making matters worse is the fact that communities of color are disproportionately targeted by these systemic failures. Young black people are 4.6 times more likely to be be locked up than their white counterparts. Native American and Latino youth are 3.2 and 1.8 times more likely, respectively.
But, Ryan notes in her written testimony, racial and ethnic disparities are not the only disparities that exist. The incarceration of girls for minor status offenses, such as running away from home, is on the rise. A new report details the rampant sexual and physical female juveniles experience — a problem that is largely overlooked. Ryan continues, 65 to 70 percent of youth behind bars have a disability, and LGBT youth make up 13 to 15 percent of the juvenile population, even though they are between 5 and 7 percent of the general youth population.
Nevertheless, Ryan contends there is room for optimism due to public support for reform and research backing up the need to reevaluate juvenile justice. She is recommending comprehensive action to change up the status quo, starting with the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which would establish basic standards for the treatment and rehabilitation of incarcerated youth. Diversion to community-based alternatives is essential, she argues, as well as statewide reforms that advocate those alternatives. Re-establishing the Elementary and Second Education Act to ensure access to educational opportunities upon release is also key.
Still, with only five minutes to testify before the HOC, Ryan won’t be able to convey all that is wrong with the system and outline all of the steps that should be taken. So to drive her points home, she is honing in on Kalief Browder, who recently committed suicide after spending a three-year stint in Rikers and inspired mounting pressure to fix the system.
“Kalief Browder’s case, like many others, highlights the pressing issues today,” she told ThinkProgress. “The fact that he [was] detained in the justice system for something that [didn’t] pose a risk to public safety — and in harsh, horrific conditions. The fact that he [was] being automatically prosecuted in an adult court. The fact that he [was] a young man of color. To me that case is symbolic of what’s wrong with the justice system.” Browder was sent to Rikers when he was 16 years old, waiting on a trial for a robbery he did not commit. Over the next three years, he was held in solitary for extended periods of time and attempted suicide on multiple occasions. Residual trauma led to his suicide this past June.
“Not a week goes by without a headline in a newspaper in the U.S. citing abuse of a young person in one of these facilities in the juvenile justice system,” Ryan continues in her written testimony, noting a second horrific death.
Andre Sheffield was another mentally ill juvenile who suffered a heinous death over a minor offense. The 14-year-old, who was put behind bars for breaking into a home, died of bacterial meningitis due to medical neglect in a juvenile facility in Florida. Prior to his death, Sheffield complained about stomach aches, and was seen soiling himself, limping, walking strangely sideways and falling over — but he was only given aspirin.
He died one month before his scheduled release date.