WASHINGTON -- Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) announced Wednesday that she is introducing several bills to improve the treatment of incarcerated youth under the age of 21. The effort comes less than two months after the suicide of Kalief Browder, who spent three years in a New York jail without a trial as a teenager.
One of the bills, Kalief's Law, addresses the sort of mistreatment Browder suffered while at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. The legislation would require states that receive certain grant funds to provide a right to speedy trial and timely bail consideration, and would require the state to dismiss any criminal case in which a youth is held in custody without a merit-based trial for more than 60 days.
Browder was accused of stealing a backpack when he was 16, and spent years in solitary confinement before the charges were thrown out. Struggling with the aftermath of isolation, he killed himself last month.
The new bill also bans the use of solitary confinement for youth held in federal facilities and the routine use of shackles during federal court appearances. (The federal juvenile population consists primarily of Native American male youth; according to 2013 justice department data, 89 individuals were being held in federal adult prisons.)
New York City officials announced a similar ban on the use of solitary confinement earlier this year in the wake of Browder's death. By extending the ban to youth up to age 21, the federal legislation seeks to address differences in brain development and maturity. Significant scientific evidence shows that the parts of the brain that govern decision-making and understanding consequences don't finish developing until as late as 25.
"Our young people are our riches and gold," Lee said at a press conference Wednesday. "We want to give our children an opportunity to be different."
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has unequivocally condemned the practice of placing minors in extended isolation, but the practice is widespread in the U.S. in both youth and adult facilities. As detailed in a Huffington Post Highline feature earlier this month, 28 kids in adult facilities in Michigan spent an average of 52 days each in punitive isolation between 2011 and 2013. Seventy-nine kids in the state spent an average of 24 days each in some other form of isolation, such as protective custody.
Lee's second bill, the RAISE Act, aims to expand the use of home confinement and end mandatory life imprisonment for youthful inmates. That bill also directs the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide specialized housing and programs for incarcerated youth.
At the state level, prisons and jails have been frequently accused of denying youth access to programming. In Michigan, for example, youthful inmates held in adult prisons receive no special counseling or education. The state also denies accusations that it facilitated sexual violence against kids by placing them in the same cells as adult inmates.
The third bill, the Fair Chance for Youth Act, allows formerly incarcerated youth to petition for the expungement of federal misdemeanor and nonviolent offense convictions, among other things.
All three bills have about three dozen co-sponsors -- none of them Republicans -- despite a growing bipartisan consensus on the need for criminal justice reform.
"Until we come together and make a decision that the lives of our children [take] precedence and they do matter, we will continue to see this problem," said Marlo Johnson, who has more than two decades of experience as a correctional officer in Maryland. She spoke about the treatment of youth in the criminal justice system at a briefing held Wednesday prior to the announcement of the bills.
She added, "Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings."
This article has been updated to include new information about the number of co-sponsors of the legislation and its terms.