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Holder Speaks Out Against Solitary Confinement of Mentally Ill Youths

In a video, Attorney General Holder spoke out against excessive use of isolation and solitary confinement for young people with disabilities at juvenile detention centers.
In a video, Attorney General Holder spoke out against excessive use of isolation and solitary confinement for young people with disabilities at juvenile detention centers.

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. condemned “excessive” use of solitary confinement of children with mental illness in juvenile facilities.

“At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities,” including mental illness, Holder said in a video posted on the Justice Department website.

“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities, who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects, including self-harm and even suicide,” the attorney general said. “In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement.”

lifeintheboxAs JJIE reported in March, thousands of juveniles endure solitary confinement each year in the United States, often in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact, even though a growing number of experts say the practice causes irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths.

Holder noted that in some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows barely the width of their hands.

“This is, to say the least, excessive, and these episodes are all too common,” he said.

“Across the country,” Holder said, “far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular, youth with disabilities. But solitary confinement can be dangerous and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.”

He pointed to a study released last year by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) showing 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth up in some form of isolation for more than four hours at a time.

Holder said it may sometimes be necessary to separate a youth from others to protect staff, other inmates or the juvenile from harm.

“However,” he added, “this action should be taken only in a limited way where there is a valid reason to do so – and for a limited amount of time.”

Holder also said juveniles placed in isolation must be closely monitored and detention facilities must make “every attempt” to continue educational and mental health programming while a youth is in isolation.

“We must ensure in all circumstances, and particularly when it comes to our young people, that incarceration is used to rehabilitate and not merely to warehouse and to forget,” Holder said.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project, praised Holder’s statement.

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“The ACLU commends Attorney General Holder for speaking out against the harmful practice of placing vulnerable youth in solitary confinement,” Fettig said in an e-mail to JJIE.  “This action clearly signals that such practices should not be tolerated in our society and that jurisdictions across the country must stop placing children in solitary confinement.

“But,” Fettig added, “the attorney general needs to go further. He must speak out against using the practice on any child – not just children with disabilities.  Thousands of kids in this country are subject to solitary confinement every year, and this practice harms each and every one of them.”

The Justice Department has taken action in recent months in response to what it said was use of solitary confinement of youths with disabilities.

In March, the department said it asked a federal court to prevent the Ohio Department of Youth Services from unlawfully placing boys with mental health disorders in solitary confinement at the state’s juvenile detention facilities. The department alleged in a motion that DYS violated the constitutional rights of boys placed in solitary at all four of the state’s juvenile detention facilities.

In February, the department’s Civil Rights Division filed a statement of interest in response to what it called excessive reliance on solitary confinement of disabled youths in Contra Costa County, Calif. The statement alleged youths were held in solitary confinement up to 22 hours a day, often with no human interaction whatsoever.

And a task force commissioned by Holder, the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, concluded in its final report in December 2012: “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” The task force recommended the practice be forbidden. Robert L. Listenbee Jr., now the OJJDP  administrator, co-chaired the task force.

In his role as OJJDP administrator, Listenbee stated in a July 5, 2013, letter to an American Civil Liberties Union official that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” which is banned under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

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OP-ED: Countering the Effects of Violence on Native Children

Listenbee-RobertOne of the most important and unsettling observations I made during my 22-year career as a trial lawyer for youth was that young people who enter the juvenile justice system, especially those charged with serious offenses, are likely to have been exposed to violence, often many times, as children. Every path to delinquency takes a different course, but the experience of childhood trauma is as close to a common marker as you will find.

Two years ago, while serving as co-chair of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, I heard from others across the country about the high rates of violence encountered by children and how this early exposure is the foundation not just of later delinquent and criminal behavior but of a host of other problems, from poor academic performance to long-term illness. With two out of every three American children touched by violence and trauma in some way, my colleagues on the task force and I agreed that this could rightly be called a national crisis.

We heard that this crisis is even more acute – if we could believe that was even possible – in communities where American Indian and Alaska Native children live. Rates of crime and violence in some tribal areas are alarmingly high, often exceeding and sometimes dwarfing those of other jurisdictions, leading to the reasonable conclusion that native children are at especially high risk. As one tribal leader put it, for those in Indian country “the question is not who has been exposed to violence, it’s who hasn’t been exposed to violence.” The testimony of tribal officials and native people was so compelling, and the available research on native children and violence so paltry, that we recommended creating a separate task force to study the issue.

Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder acted on that recommendation and established the American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence Task Force, which is anchored by two separate bodies: a working group assembled to identify actions that federal agencies can take and a 13-member national advisory committee whose job is to improve our understanding of children’s exposure to violence in Indian country and recommend ways to address it.  The federal working group has been meeting since last summer and already has taken several important steps, including expanding educational services inside Bureau of Indian Affairs juvenile detention facilities.

The advisory committee, chaired by former United States Sen. Byron Dorgan and Iroquois composer and performer Joanne Shenandoah, recently held its first hearing in Bismarck, N.D., where tribal leaders, child and family advocates, Native Americans who have experienced childhood trauma, and others came together to talk about child sexual abuse, violence in the home, and the intersection between child maltreatment and domestic abuse.

Their testimony underscored what researchers have told us – that the shared historic experience by American Indian and Alaska Native people of displacement, forced assimilation and cultural suppression leaves a legacy of trauma that elevates the risk of child maltreatment.

Over the coming year, committee members will hold three more hearings and several listening sessions and will consult other experts on the topic. By the end of 2014, they will put together a report for the Attorney General suggesting ways that policymakers, practitioners, and researchers across the nation can address this troubling phenomenon.  The attorney general’s hope is that their recommendations will be bold and visionary and give the country a clear roadmap to countering violence among native children.

Violence in many tribal communities is complex and deep-rooted.  We can’t expect it to go away on its own. But we can fight back by improving our understanding of it and supporting effective practices, many of which spring from tribal traditions, that help avert violence and enhance resilience among affected children.

Our work will not be easy, but a strong collective commitment to the safety and well-being of native children will guide us to success.

 

Bob Listenbee is the Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a component of the Office of Justice Programs within the United States Department of Justice.

 

Childhood Trauma Threatens National Well-Being: DOJ Task Force

Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary, Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Acting Administrator of the OJJDP, Melodee Hanes, at a federal interagency meeting on juvenile justice Wednesday. Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Two out of three children in the United States experience or witness violence, crime or abuse while growing up, a public health crisis that harms their emotional, physical and intellectual development and makes them more likely to perpetrate the same trauma upon their own children, a national task force appointed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said this week.

The long-term well-being of the country is at stake unless federal and local governments and their communities act to reduce the incidence and impact of such trauma upon young Americans, the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence concluded in its final report.

The report detailed 56 policy recommendations for reducing such exposure to trauma and treating its fallout. Such exposure could occur anywhere, the report said: at home, at school, in the community and on the Internet.

“There is a moral component to this question,” Holder said at a public meeting of the federal interagency Coordinating Council for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which approved the report’s release. “This is about what kind of America do you want to have. This is a question of who we are as a nation.”

The imperative to act on the epidemic was not simply moral, it was economic, Holder said. A person impacted by childhood trauma who went “down a criminal path” would cost the country $3 million over his or her lifetime, Holder said. “By contrast, the cost of effective prevention is typically only a few hundred or a few thousand per person.”

The task force’s report emphasized that argument. “The financial costs of children’s exposure to violence are astronomical. The financial burden on other public systems, including child welfare, social services, law enforcement, juvenile justice, and, in particular, education, is staggering when combined with the loss of productivity over children’s lifetimes,” it read.

The outcomes are worst for children whose exposure to trauma goes unnoticed and who don’t receive support from parents, caregivers or their communities, said Dr. Steven Marans, a member of the task force and a professor of psychiatry at Yale University’s Child Study Center and School of Medicine.

Co-chaired by baseball legend Joe Torre, who grew up aware of his mother’s abuse at the hands of his father and who now heads a foundation against domestic violence, the task force based its recommendations upon the latest available research and testimonials from public hearings attended by community residents, researchers, child welfare workers and advocates from 27 states and the District of Columbia.

The task force examined different programs, strategies and services to help young people develop and thrive, said task force member Georgina Mendoza, the director for community safety in Salinas, Calif. It found that the most promising programs are those that take a multidisciplinary and multi-jurisdictional approach and coordinate responses between agencies and organizations serving the same populations, she said.

“There are so many different aspects of people’s lives. They don’t live in a silo’ed world. We do,” Mendoza said of child welfare practitioners.

Agencies that serve children and families should also develop their understanding of the cultural origins of members of their community and incorporate within their programming the challenges faced by children of immigrants, rural communities, tribal communities, inner cities and other marginalized groups, Mendoza said.

Young people who break the law should be screened for their exposure to violence and trauma as part of the standard of care at juvenile justice facilities, and should be prosecuted within the juvenile system and not in the adult criminal justice system, said Robert Listenbee Jr., the co-chair of the task force and the chief of the juvenile unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

Young people must be included in community efforts to address their exposure to violence and crime and allowed to develop leadership within them, Mendoza said. If young people are not consulted, she said, they will not feel ownership or accountability over those efforts and the efforts will fail.

Holder upheld participation by young people as a key part of the solution. “I do think that involving our young people in this effort and reaching out other young people will make this much more effective,” Holder said.

The findings of the task force will play a critical role in guiding federal and local efforts for years to come, Holder said.

“We have to keep pushing to raise the consciousness of the American people about the nature, the depth and breadth of this problem,” Holder said. “This is not going to be shelved. This will be a priority for the Justice Department and for this administration.”

Justice Department Expands Youth Violence Prevention Program

Attorney General Eric Holder

WASHINGTON - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced this week that the Justice Department will expand to 10 – from six – the number of cities participating in the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention. The planned expansion comes as the original participants continue to struggle through breaking down walls among government agencies and with community-based groups.

The National Forum, established 18 months ago, is designed to allow the cities involved to fashion their individual crime prevention programs that emphasize more comprehensive approaches across government agencies. An initial evaluation by Temple University and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York found that all six cities showed some “positive indicators” of the initiative but there were no “profound perceptions” among local residents of a reduction in juvenile violence.

Representatives of the six cities – Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Memphis and Salinas and San Jose, Calif. – met in Washington this week to discuss each city’s progress and problems, including difficulties obtaining information from various government agencies and then trying to match data that is reported variously by Census block, political ward, street, congressional district, neighborhood, school district, police district and ZIP code.

David Henry, professor of public health and psychology at the University of Illinois who is involved in Chicago’s youth violence prevention program, said the city’s premier anti-violence program has “lots of information, the problem is trying to match it up.”

One data set, sorted by longitude and latitude in an effort to make it more usable, placed all of Chicago’s criminal incidents in one location – in Missouri. Henry said somehow an extra digit had been added to the geographic coordinates corrupting the data.

Howard Spivak, head of the violence prevention division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, led a session on the centers’ epidemiological approach to crime prevention and the importance of sharing data among various agencies that touch children’s lives. The CDC considers any kind of violence, including gun violence, a public health issue.

Too often, he said, police departments and corrections departments don’t talk to one another and schools and child protective agencies don’t share information. For example, police may release a detained youth without knowing the youth is on probation, Spivak said. “It has been a nightmare getting this kind of data,” he said.

Mallory O’Brien, director of the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission, explained that her group operates using the public health approach, similar to better known Child Fatality Review Committees, except that the homicide commission collects and disseminates its information in real time, not a year or two later, allowing intervention to take place.

Every homicide in Milwaukee is investigated not just to identify a suspect but to look at all events leading up to a shooting, to learn the relatives and associates of the victim, their contacts with various social service agencies and any information community-based agencies might know about the victim and the suspect, such as gang involvement. They look at the location of the incident and other nearby incidents and even cases dismissed before charges are filed, to determine if patterns of problems are emerging in an area.

O’Brien said that community policing and community prosecution means that officers and prosecutors are familiar with repeat offenders and can make connections among seemingly disparate incidents.

The review commission also investigates nonfatal shootings and near-fatal domestic abuse incidents to help identify children who are at-risk.

“Who thought that homicides are preventable?” O’Brien asked, noting that in 2011 homicides were down 52 percent in three targeted areas in Milwaukee, compared with a 9.2 percent decrease in control areas.

Attorney General Holder Asked to Ban Juveniles from Adult Prisons

The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NRPEC) is about to close a second 60-day public comment period on recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder.  The Commission’s report addresses standards to prevent sexual abuse of prison inmates, including juveniles in both youth detention centers and adult prisons.  The Attorney General will make a final decision on the proposed standards.

With the deadline for pubic comments fast approaching, the Campaign for Youth Justice is circulating a letter addressed to Attorney General Holder asking for additional signatures.  The letter calls on Holder to ban juveniles from adult prisons.

“Adult facilities housing children and youth face a dangerous dilemma,” the letter said, “forced to choose between housing youth in the general adult population, where they are at substantial risk of both physical and sexual abuse, and housing youth in segregated settings which cause or exacerbate mental health problems.”

The Campaign for Youth Justice is trying to get 500 signatures by Friday morning.  You can read the letter here.

Child Advocates React To AG Holder’s Juvenile Justice Reform Call

Local child advocates are reacting favorably to United States Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent comments about the dire need for major juvenile justice system reform.

In remarks to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Holder called for the Department of Justice to adopt a new approach that combines evidence-based research and comprehensive community partnerships. Holder also said that it’s time for us to ask some important questions such as; why is it that African-American youth make up 16 percent of the overall youth population, but comprise more than half of the juvenile population arrested for committing a violent crime?  Why is it that abused and neglected children are 11 times more likely than their non-abused and non-neglected peers to be arrested for criminal behavior?   And why is that so many of those who enter our juvenile justice system either can’t afford – or do not know to ask for – access to legal guidance?   Some even plead guilty to criminal offenses without the advice of a lawyer. Read the full speech.
Some of the points Holder made in the March 7 address include:

  • Serving our young people makes good economic sense by keeping them out of “over-stressed and under-funded corrections facilities and saving precious law enforcement resources.”
  • How we treat our children speaks to who we are as a nation.
  • It’s time to broaden our approach to juvenile justice – and to ensure that sound research and respected analysis are a part of our decision-making process.
  • We must transition from a prosecution-and-punishment model to a prevention-and-intervention paradigm.
  • We must adopt a comprehensive plan of action – one that engages law-enforcement partners, medical professionals, social services providers, lawyers, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors and community leaders.
  • We as a nation must be smart, not just tough, on crime to help generate the positive outcomes we seek for our young people.
  • Juvenile justice reform will also save the nation money in the long run.*The best—and most targeted—solutions will be shared solutions, "created together—after rigorous scientific evaluation and innovative resource levering."
  • Evidence on our nation’s juvenile justice system demonstrates that change is needed because the current system does not spend resources as wisely as it should.
  • Even though many of those who are incarcerated enter the juvenile justice system for non-violent offences, they often emerge violent – or, at the very least – traumatized.
  • Each year too many of the 100,000 young people who exit formal custody have nowhere to go, return to unstable homes or end up in shelters, on the streets, or in other potentially dangerous or violent situations.
  • Many juveniles who leave the system are not welcomed back to their community school and struggle to find educational opportunities.
  • Juvenile justice reform must become a nationwide effort to bring systemic, not incremental, reform to our justice system.

Here’s what some local leaders and child advocates had to say about Holder’s comments.

Sen. Jones

Emanuel D. Jones, State Senator (D-Decatur)

“The attorney general spoke very powerful words regarding our system of Juvenile Justice. I agree with his call to action and we can do better by our kids. The system is broken and too many poor and children of color are being unfairly punished in a system that lacks accountability of their efforts to rehabilitate detained children. Our system of juvenile justice is broken and anytime institutions are allowed to profit off youth detention, justice is compromised. We need to remove this yoke from around lady justice' s neck and allow meaningful reform in our juvenile justice system. Alternatives to incarceration are available and I believe the Departments of Juvenile Justice must be given greater flexibility to rehabilitate children to include the authority to parole children in youth detention centers.“

Tanya Culbreth, Home-School Parent Liaison, B.E.S.T. Academy (an all-male Atlanta public middle and high school)

Culbreth

“We treat our children as sub-standard human beings -- not as human beings who can succeed -- and get sub-standard results. I agree that we need to implement more intervention and prevention methods on the front end and not the back end with prisons and detention centers.  I also agree with the attorney general that it is time for major reform. This system is clearly not working. We need to look at where we are spending our resources. Working at an all black-male Atlanta Public School, his comments really resonate. He’s right about the racial disparities. The answer to this lies in the answer to the question; how do we engage a population that feels so disconnected? These young men come from families that also feel disconnected from mainstream society. They feel like the odds are stacked against them. The school-to-prison-pipeline is real. By cutting education spending and investing into prisons we are grooming our kids to go right into the prison system. Now many schools are merely teaching our kids how to past the standardized test. After that the teachers don’t have time or the energy left to explore, inspire and encourage the students.  No Child Left Behind did just the opposite of the stated intent; No Child Left Behind has left everybody behind!”

Judge Teske

Steve Teske, Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge

“This past November I delivered a keynote speech at a conference in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Department of Justice on juvenile justice.  Attorney General Holder made introductory remarks to my keynote speech.  He shared the same information.  My speech supported what he said.  It is time we re-invent the juvenile justice system using evidence-based practices.  However, evidence-based practices must include a system that is multi-disciplinary and supports evidence-based programs that effectively restore youth.  Effective programs are only effective in practice when all stakeholders work together.”

Chara Jackson, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia Legal Director

Jackson

“I am very pleased with what Attorney General Holder said. His comments speak to exactly what we’re trying to do in Georgia with SB 127, the juvenile code rewrite, led by JUST Georgia and other stakeholder groups. His comments really show people who have been committed to juvenile justice for years that we all really are on the same page. I think with the passage of the code rewrite in Georgia can be at the forefront of change in the juvenile justice system. Hopefully we are close to getting this measure approved in the Georgia Senate.”

Viveca Famber-Powell, Atlanta Defense Attorney

“I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Holder.  I have worked as a defense attorney for almost 30 years with much of that time defending and advocating for children charged with offenses from ungovernable to murder.  At every level, incarceration is a tool that is always used too quickly.  This is especially so in the most serious cases where the imposition of minimum mandatory 10 and 25 year prison sentences for children as young as 13 in cases where there is no loss of life or even injury is a routine occurrence in Georgia.  These expensive prison dollars can be more efficiently, economically and successfully spent on supervision and services for more children. These services are already in place and work and can be shown empirically to be successful on most children, even in serious cases.  The $180,000 it costs to keep a young offender in prison 10 years on an armed robbery can educate 45 boys in the public school for a year.  If there is any way to avoid spending that $180,000 on one child, we should try it.  There is ample research already to show that young offenders here can be rehabilitated, monitored and supervised in the community at a cost far less than the close to $500,000 per child it would cost to imprison that same child for 25 years as current law mandates. Crime and punishment is not what we should aspire to when we talk about children in the criminal justice system.  The better identifier would be mistake and correction.”