The recent suicide of Kalief Browder, a one-time inmate held in the adolescent jail on notorious Rikers Island, is a wake-up call to stop treating youth in our justice system as if they were adults.
After three years of incarceration beginning in 2010, two of which were spent in solitary confinement, Browder was working his way back toward a normal life. Despite the abuses he experienced, he was moving in the right direction, working toward a college degree.
Putting his Rikers experiences behind him was no small order.
Browder was deprived of age-appropriate services and denied protections that youth get who are housed in juvenile-specific facilities that prioritize evidence-based responses. Instead, he was assaulted by correctional officers as well as by a gang of inmates, some of which was caught on videotape.
The justice system failed him at numerous junctures, as it has so many others; there is no excuse for the way he was treated.
Browder’s abuse is not an anomaly; this type of treatment is common at the jail. According to a U.S. Justice Department report released in 2014, the jail is a place that “seems more inspired by Lord of the Flies than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.”
New York’s adolescent jail for 16- and 17-year-olds awaiting criminal trials is a far cry from the standards established by experts in juvenile justice.
Indeed, it is nothing more than an adult jail for teenagers, employed with correctional officers and lacking in the therapeutic programming and interventions that we know changes young lives.
Browder’s early death presents an opportunity to change course on the way that thousands of adolescents are treated in the justice system.
More than 6,000 children under the age of 18 are housed in adult prisons and jails on any given day in the United States, facing experiences similar to those that Kalief Browder endured, experiences from which he never recovered and that ultimately pushed him to take his own life.
The tragedy of his suicide sparks an urgent call for multiple reforms, including a call to end overpolicing in communities of color, a call for bail reform, a call for improved access to quality counsel and a call for improved conditions of confinement, including the abolishment of solitary confinement for children.
There is a pressing need to abandon the practice of housing juveniles awaiting trial in adult or adultlike facilities.
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), long overdue for reauthorization, is currently being considered by Congress.
A strengthened JJDPA would require that adolescents under age 18 be housed in facilities designed for youth and adolescents, and operated by skilled professionals with specialized training in adolescent development.
Ashley Nellis, Ph.D. has an academic and professional background in analyzing criminal and juvenile justice policies and practice, and has extensive experience in analyzing disparities among youth of color in the juvenile justice system. She leads The Sentencing Project's research and legislative activities in juvenile justice reform.