Days after leading groups started to re-circulate a letter by more than 80 organizations, including CWLA, in support of action on a Senate bill to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA, S 1169), the President took action to ban solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons. At nearly the same time the Supreme Court expanded its prohibition on mandatory juvenile life sentences.
In an unusual move, the President authored an opinion piece in the Washington Post saying that he was taking a series of steps based on recommendations from the Attorney General which in turn were the result of a Department of Justice review of needed prison reforms. The President retold the story of a teenager who had been arrested in New York City for stealing a backpack. His treatment at New York City’s Rikers Island was so abusive and severe including a stay in solitary confinement he never overcame the impact and despite attending a community college with some measure of academic success, committed suicide at the age of 22.
In addition to banning the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, the President is also seeking greater treatment for mental illness for the overall prison population. In banning the practice for juveniles the President cited the higher suicide rates especially for juveniles and prisoners with mental illnesses.
The Supreme Court on Monday, January 25, ruled that their previous ruling, Miller V Alabama, decision that banned mandatory juvenile life sentences, should be applied retroactively. The slip opinion, which amounts an additional clarification of an earlier ruling, Montgomery v Louisiana referring to earlier court precedent highlighting in that earlier judgement,
“While the Court held that new constitutional rules of criminal procedure are generally not retroactive, it recognized that courts must give retroactive effect to new watershed procedural and to substantive rules of constitutional law.”
The results should be that thousands of people currently in prison serving life sentences will have their sentences re-heard.
There is hope for bipartisan prison reform measures for the entire prison population including a reduction in mandatory minimums. Last week however, there were some published reports that Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and some other conservative members of the Senate were pushing back against some prison reform bipartisan bills. There have been strong bipartisan efforts to reform current sentencing practices with senators as far apart politically as Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) to Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) joining together to reach a consensus.
Senator Charles Grassley had some positive initial reaction to the President’s comments on the juvenile justice actions. S 1169 is the JJDPA Reauthorization bill by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that groups are getting behind. It is unclear how the overall criminal justice debate will affect the juvenile justice issue.