The Truth Behind Obama’s Juvenile Justice Reform

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Alton Pitre

Alton PitreLately I’ve read so many articles on juvenile and criminal justice reform laws being passed it’s surreal. At first glance these reforms momentarily swept me off my feet.

Last month, in a series of executive actions, President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for all juveniles in the federal prison system and for inmates who commit low-level infractions. The new rule prescribes that a prisoner cannot be punished with solitary confinement for a first offense for longer than 60 days, instead of the existing maximum of 365 days. Roughly 10,000 federal inmates will be affected by this reform.

While the media labels these reforms as major keys toward unlocking justice, I can’t dwell on this but need to keep working on more reforms.

The truth is, hardly any kids will be directly impacted by this because there are practically no juveniles in federal prisons. In December 2015, the Bureau of Prisons recorded only 26 people under 18 in federal custody.

This information immediately brought me back down to earth. I am a firm believer in maintaining a positive outlook but I am also a man who understands reality. Even so, Obama’s reform can be a huge blueprint for states to follow.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed by Obama, he emphasized the story of Kalief Browder and the need to rethink the inhumane practices that ultimately led to the 22-year-old’s death. Browder was 16 in 2010 when he was incarcerated at Rikers Island, awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. He spent nearly two years in solitary confinement enduring all kinds of abuse. He was eventually released, but due to the extreme trauma from solitary confinement he committed suicide.

The juvenile system failed Browder and his family every step of the way, from his arrest for the minor crime he allegedly committed to the way he was treated and how long he was kept without trial at Rikers Island. But that’s another story.

Our nation’s callous use of solitary confinement, particularly for youth who are at such vulnerable stages in their lives, is the problem that needs to be fixed. Incarceration is no real solution to reducing crime and changing lives, but if a person must be imprisoned they should not be subjected to solitary, especially for long periods.

Secluding a person from human contact in a limited space that way is not at all healthy, whether you are isolated inside a bedroom or even worse, a small prison cell. I don’t even like being by myself inside my dorm room all day here at Morehouse College.

[Related: The Handbook of Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Justice]

About five years ago, I was subjected to this cruel punishment at 18 inside a compound at juvenile hall. Because of my alleged charges, I was considered a “high-risk offender” along with all the other juveniles in Los Angeles County who were being tried as adults. We were segregated from the kids in general population inside a gated prison that housed two buildings with four special units divided by age and sometimes race. Often we were even separated from each other within our own units without any reading material or anything else.

I was already battling the catastrophic predicament of being locked up for a crime I had not been involved in. Having to be crammed into a mansion-sized walk-in closet all day for weeks at a time was not helping my rehabilitation.

There were no toilets inside our rooms. Depending on the senior probation staff in charge that day, we could be cheated of our only hour or two mandated for us to be spent in recreation outside the rooms. My imagination can hardly fathom what it is like to experience solitary confinement in an actual adult prison.

President Obama’s good intentions are not  unappreciated. I love our first black president and the morals he fights for and stands for.

I am just not as overwhelmingly happy as I was when I first heard the news that he banned the use of solitary confinement on juveniles in the federal prison system. I’m glad there are fewer than 30 kids in federal prisons and I know that Obama has limited power when it comes to changing state laws.

But it is astonishing and disappointing to know that only a tiny percentage of juveniles will be directly affected by the new ban.

I will continue to pray and advocate for the ban of solitary confinement on juveniles all across the United States. If America is serious about changing the trajectory of juvenile and criminal justice reform for the better, then state and local governments must act to apply this reform. It is an imperative component to changing and rehabilitating the lives of our youth.

I believe in prevention and alternatives to incarceration for kids, but for those who must be incarcerated, providing the necessary treatment and proper resources will only improve our justice system and ultimately the lives of the kids. Treating juveniles with care while they are incarcerated will enable them to return to society as productive members and reduce the need to lock them up when they are older, saving our country tons of money.

As Frederick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Alton Pitre is a 24-year-old native of Los Angeles. He is a juvenile justice ambassador, serves on the Member Board for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and is a sociology major at Morehouse College.

More related articles:

California Gov. Jerry Brown Backs No More Automatic Adult Charges for Teens in New Initiative

Attorneys Need to Be Alert to Youth Who May Be Put in Solitary

How Cities Can Lead in the Effort to Arrest Fewer Youth

2 thoughts on “The Truth Behind Obama’s Juvenile Justice Reform

  1. I agree with the overview, but not the assessment. The President cannot make legislation at the State level, that is for the Governor and others. The President’s job is to set the standard of expectation and to move dollars into the federal systems that ultimately are responsible for oversight with regard to the implementation. I am in no way disappointed in the legislation, as President, he has acted within his scope of power. Now is the time for citizens to encourage their state and local governments to do the same. The criticism at the executive level is misdirected and counterproductive to advancing civil liberties that can and will support those affected by the juvenile system. Additionally, the issue is not within the walls, it is upon discharge when they return to the same environment and influences.

  2. I agree with everything that was said in this article. I believe that we are taking some great steps towards improving our justice system, but we need to continue and not stop here. Many people don’t have the opportunity to learn about what is going on within prison walls. We definitely need to advocate for these people because as a whole, treating incarcerated individuals so poorly really does nothing for their improvement and it just prolongs the issues. I’m so happy to hear others that think this too. Here’s to reforming our system.