Following President Obama's Lead and Rethinking Justice for Youth

President Obama has taken a huge step towards dismantling our country's culture of punishment. In a historic move, last week, President Obama used his executive authority to end the use of solitary confinement for youth in federal prisons, a welcome change for which youth justice leaders have long been advocating.

Citing research that suggests solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences--including suicide--the President declared that the practice "doesn't make us safer [and is] an affront to our common humanity."

His announcement came on the heels of The U.S. Supreme Court's Montgomery v. Alabama ruling that its ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth also applied retroactively, making more than 2,000 incarcerated individuals eligible for resentencing or the possibility of eventual freedom.

These and other recent policy changes recognize that special treatment and consideration are warranted for youth in the justice system. This is important because research tells us that our brains don't fully develop until our mid-twenties and youth are likely to engage in risky behavior, which they will eventually outgrow as they come to maturity. We also know that 90 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system have experienced childhood trauma and 70 percent have some form of mental health need.

I've written before about why it's so important for our criminal justice system to prioritize prevention and opportunity, not punishment.

For too long, we've been heading in the wrong direction and depriving our young people of the chance to reach their full potential, and too often we are punishing children for symptoms of health problems:
  • Too many students, especially youth of color, are pushed out of our schools and funneled into the criminal justice system.
  • Many of them suffer from trauma that's rooted in their experiences growing up in neighborhoods where violence and poverty is the norm. Their anxiety is real, but too often we respond with the blunt instrument of a justice system that's not set up to deal with what are essentially public health issues.
  • And for the mistakes youth often make, they are punished through obsolete criminal justice policies that have a long-term impact on their health and, just as bad, deny them a second chance.

So how should we be responding to youth that do interact with our justice system?

We should follow President Obama's lead, rethinking solitary confinement. We should reconsider how we work with adolescents who are crying out for help even as they make youthful mistakes.

We should be giving young people the tools they need to succeed in school in the first place--not expelling and suspending students who might be having a bad day because they've witnessed a shooting, are a victim of violence themselves, or haven't had enough to eat. For those youth who have made mistakes - as we all do - we should be helping them repair the harm they've done, become more resilient, and return to our communities better equipped to become productive citizens.

We applaud President Obama's announcement and the bold leadership that it exemplifies. We hope that other national, state and local elected leaders can build on this moment and look at policies that put youth first and fill their lives with opportunity rather than punishment. It's the only way to create a stronger, healthier future for our country.