Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Alternatives to Confining Youth in Solitary

October is National Youth Justice Awareness Month, and the Campaign for Youth Justice is taking the opportunity to educate the public about youth incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system. Even though the ideas behind laws for sentencing and incarcerating children as adults have been debunked, there are still 250,000 youth on an annual basis in the United States that are tried, sentence or incarcerated as adults. A particularly disturbing aspect of housing youth in adult facilities is that they can be subject to solitary confinement, which has more profound negative impact on youth than on adults.

A new report from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States,” is based on interviews and correspondence with more than 125 youth in 19 states who spent time in solitary confinement while under age 18.

The bare social and physical environment makes youth feel doomed and abandoned, or in some cases, suicidal, and can lead to serious physical and emotional consequences. Youth in solitary confinement describe cutting themselves with staples or razors, hallucinations, losing control of themselves, or losing touch with reality. They talk about only being allowed to exercise in small metal cages, alone, a few times a week; about being prevented from going to school or participating in any activity that promotes growth or change. Oftentimes they are denied visitation from family and relatives.

Experts assert that youth are psychologically unable to handle solitary confinement with the resilience of an adult. And, because they are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow. Solitary confinement can exacerbate, or make more likely, short and long-term mental health problems. The most common deprivation that accompanies solitary confinement, denial of physical exercise, is physically harmful to adolescents’ health and well-being.

Youth can be guilty of crimes with significant consequences for victims, their families, and their communities. The state has a duty to ensure accountability for serious crimes, and to protect the public. But states also have special responsibilities not to treat youth in ways that can permanently harm their development and rehabilitation. Fortunately, there is a way to accomplish both public safety and the safety of the youth who have committed crimes.

Solitary confinement is costly, ineffective, and harmful with consequences for both the youth and the general public. Youth who have experienced solitary confinement return to their communities with psychological damage, social deprivation, and the deprivation of essential services such as mental health counseling and education. This puts them at an increased risk to commit more crimes that will reinvolve them with the justice system, and puts them at a disadvantage for acquiring stable employment.

The ACLU’s report describes a number of better policies that policymakers could implement as alternatives to solitary confinement. Youth can be better managed in facilities designed to meet their unique needs, staffed with specially trained personnel, and organized to encourage positive behaviors. Another useful step would be to conduct a review of laws, policies and practices that result in youth being held in solitary confinement to get a better sense of what would be necessary to end this practice.

Of course, the most effective way to reduce youth being held in solitary confinement would be to keep youth entirely out of adult detention facilities. Never housing youth in adult facilities will both help better rehabilitate adolescents and better ensure the safety of our communities. For more details, visit the Policy For Results website on policies that can reduce juvenile detention. Rather than continuing a practice like solitary confinement, which does much harm and no good, policymakers can reform the juvenile justice system so that youth are guaranteed the ability to grow, be rehabilitated, and reenter society successfully.

Sign up on for updates on results-based public policy strategies for preventing juvenile delinquency and ensuring quality juvenile justice services – coming soon!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Not Mentioned at the Debates: Poverty, and the Case for Maintaining and Strengthening the Safety Net

Last night, at the first Presidential debate, we heard the candidates focus their remarks on how they would help the middle class. Unfortunately, moderator Jim Lehrer did not ask a question about how the candidates would alleviate poverty, and they did not talk specifically about what they would do to help Americans in the lowest income bracket.

What should have been conveyed to the American people is how crucial it is to maintain the federal safety net, or “the floor below which you cannot fall” as President Obama referred to it last night. A large component of this “floor” is Social Security, which the candidates spoke about in reference to seniors, but not nearly as much about how it helps low-income people. In addition to Social Security, two other important components of the safety net are refundable tax credits and food assistance.

As the 2011 poverty data from the US Census revealed, policies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have kept millions of Americans out of poverty. Yet there are still 46 million Americans in poverty, 16 million of whom are children—an alarming 1 in 5 children. In order to begin to assist more of the 46 million poor people in this country, the safety net needs to be expanded—not capped, converted to a block grant or eliminated altogether.
As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities showed, making cuts to SNAP would cause millions of people to lose their benefit, which could be devastating considering the current economic hardship experienced by so many families.

The federal deficit was a major point of contention at the debate last night, so it is of worthy note that not only does SNAP address a serious need among Americans experiencing food hardship and food insecurity, it also stimulates the economy. According to an analysis by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC):
  • Nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. didn’t have enough money to purchase food they need for themselves and their families in the first six months of 2012.
  • More than 50.1 million Americans lived in households that struggled against hunger in 2011.
  • Each federally funded dollar of SNAP benefits generates nearly double that in economic activity, because people are using the money to purchase food.
  • Increased SNAP participation can increase state revenues. For example, in California each dollar of SNAP benefits frees up an estimated 45 cents more recipients spend on taxable goods, yielding additional tax revenues for the state.
In 2011, SNAP was responsible for lifting 3.9 million Americans (1.7 million children) out of poverty.
Another critical component of the safety net, refundable tax credits, were responsible for lifting an additional 9.2 million Americans (4.9 million children) out of poverty in 2010. These tax credits include:
  • EITC kept 6.3 million Americans out of poverty (500,000 due to improvements brought via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).
  • The Child Tax Credit (CTC) kept 2.6 million Americans out of poverty (1 million due to ARRA improvements).
ARRA was able to expand these crucial tax credits for low-income families by creating a new tier for larger families, and by providing marriage penalty relief. Unfortunately, as part of the large bundle of expiring financial policies constituting the looming “fiscal cliff”, the ARRA improvements are set to expire at the end of 2012. Without the Child Tax Credit, a single mother with two children working full-time at minimum wage would lose $1,545 annually. In order to prevent millions of families from facing additional financial burden, policymakers at the federal and state level should consider options that would expand EITC and CTC or consider the development of state compliments where they are not currently in place.

As the New York Times discussed, the Presidential candidates hold starkly different views of the role and scope of government in American society. However, both the data and history have shown that specific policy changes related to strengthening the safety net not only help American families by keeping them out of poverty, but also benefit the economy. Policymakers can lead by strengthening the policies and programs that serve the needs of low-income and poor families as well as strengthen the country’s economic circumstances.  Luckily for us, it is possible to do both.