Fusion Petitions White House To End Juvenile Solitary Confinement, Previews New Documentary

Juvenile justice reform finds support among a group of people you usually don't see agreeing.
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WASHINGTON -- Representatives of Koch Industries, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Democratic Party and a TV network were just a few making up the unlikely coalition that gathered Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol in an effort to reform the juvenile justice system.

Fusion, a joint venture of Disney and Univision, hosted and used the event as an opportunity to screen part of its upcoming documentary Prison Kids: A Crime Against America's Children, which details the strife of children in juvenile detention facilities and the experiences' long-lasting effects on their futures.

"If you're an American, this does not make sense," said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), speaking to the number of children who are placed in detention facilities for nonviolent crimes. "It violates our morals, it violates our fiscal prudence, it violates common sense."

Booker, an avid supporter of prison reform and co-author of the yet-to-be-passed MERCY Act -- a call to ban solitary confinement of federally tried juveniles -- went on to announce that the Senate Judiciary Committee would unveil a bipartisan reform proposal on Thursday. That proposal similarly calls for limits on solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prison.

"It is good progress in the right direction and, I think, stops this trend of making things worse," Booker said Wednesday of the upcoming proposal.

While the MERCY Act and the reform announced Thursday both target juveniles tried in federal systems, the overwhelming majority of juveniles are in state systems, which makes federal reforms more difficult. A spokesperson from Booker's office said he hoped the bill would send a message to states while also helping the small number of individuals affected.

Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president at Koch Industries, said prison time could often be more effectively replaced with another remedy. Working as a prison guard in Worcester, Massachusetts, before he went to law school, Holden said, "There were people who -- they weren't violent. They made mistakes and they needed support. They probably needed drug treatment. They needed a job. They needed opportunity. They didn't get it so they became lost in the system and forgotten about."

"We've got to get comfortable talking about the racial aspect of this," said former "Crossfire" host Van Jones. Jones recently formed Cut50, an organization fighting to cut the prison population in the US by 50 percent. According to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, minority youth have been over-represented in the juvenile justice system for years.

The government has more than 54,000 juvenile offenders locked up on a given day, as of 2013, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and spends between $8 and $21 billion annually on these programs, according to the Justice Policy Institute.

Only 20 states have banned solitary confinement for juveniles, but the practice has been cited as extremely traumatizing for youths. Some, including JJIE and Fusion have referred to the method of discipline as a form of torture.

Fusion has also created a petition for the White House to end solitary confinement for juveniles.

This summer, Bronx-born Kalief Browder committed suicide after struggling with trauma after his time in New York's Rikers Island Prison. As The New Yorker reported in 2014, Browder, who was arrested and accused of stealing a backpack at the age of 16 in 2010, spent three years without trial in Rikers. Roughly two of these years were spent in solitary confinement.

"It is such an emotionally traumatizing experience," Booker said of solitary on Wednesday. "The evidence is so damning in terms of what it does to young people."

This story has been updated to include comment from Booker's office.

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