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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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International Group Hails Florida Juvenile Justice Reformer

Wansley Walters. Photo courtesy of the International Juvenile Justice Observatory.

The woman driving the Florida Juvenile Justice Department toward a goal of “system excellence” is a 2012 winner of an international award that recognizes commitment to children’s justice.

“We’re trying to do a complete paradigm shift,” said Wansley Walters, Secretary of the Florida DJJ and one of eight recipients of the 2012 Juvenile Justice Without Borders International Award, presented by the International Juvenile Justice Observatory, a Belgium-based international organization that works in conjunction with the United Nations, the European Union and other groups.

“We’re trying to be proactive, not reactive,” she said.

Walters came to the DJJ nearly two years ago from the Miami-Dade County Juvenile Services Department. There she pushed to keep most kids in treatment or diversion programs, leaving secure beds and police records only for the most serious, risky offenders.

That program attracted observers from as far away as Thailand, who used some of Miami’s principles in their own national juvenile justice reforms. Indeed, Thailand’s national agency in charge of juvenile justice won an IJJO award as well.

Other winners of the biennial prize include activists and researchers based in Europe and Africa. An honorary award was given to Georges Loinger, a Jewish teacher during World War II who escaped from Nazi captivity and smuggled hundreds of Jewish youngsters into safety in Switzerland.

They received the awards at the 2012 International Youth Justice Convention in London earlier this month. Afterward, Walters returned to the road in Florida, promoting, publicizing and explaining the department’s “Roadmap to System Excellence,” a just-published set of policies and programs aimed at making the state a national model for juvenile justice.

“When you have a child who’s committed a minor offense, that does not mean that he’s a minor offender,” said Walters on Nov. 27, ahead of a Gainesville, Fla., town hall meeting about the map. “Nor does it mean that he does not have some significant risk factors.”

So when a child commits some offense, it is key, she said, to screen and assess that child as early in the process as possible and send him to the right follow-up.

“You may have three shoplifters, [who] have three entirely different scenarios behind them,” she gave as an example. One may have made a stupid mistake and does not need a lot of resources to keep him out of trouble. Another might be a substance abuser who will straighten up with treatment. The third could be acting out due to abuse at home and needs a completely different set of services.

Figuring out those scenarios early gives law enforcement a chance to use their resources strategically, she explained.

That philosophy matches with London conference presentations. “Research on adolescent brain development has led to a widespread acknowledgement that youth are different from adults, and so should be given treatment rather than punishment – again, particularly in the case of low-level juvenile offenders," Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative in Illinois, told the crowd in London.

Walters also said she finds that juvenile justice “is a very socieo-economic system. The kind of system you experience depends on the family you come from.”

Some children have many supportive adults who can offer them shelter, or who have money, or who can give them a ride to court. Others get sent to juvenile hall because they are charged with misdemeanor domestic violence and have no other relative to stay with, or get a contempt citation just because there’s no way to get to the courthouse.

Programs starting up now aim to fill those gaps by making rides available and setting up “cooling-off” shelters with family intervention services for children accused solely of misdemeanor domestic abuse.

By 2014, Walters plans to present the state Legislature with a package of legal changes that will help pave the road to system excellence.

“We’ve been using detention as a catchall. It’s expensive and it’s damaging and it should only be used for a child that represents a threat to public safety,” she said.

The IJJO Conference and International Youth Justice Convention was held to “provide valuable and practical international perspectives on developments in juvenile justice,” said organizing committee Chair Malcolm Stevens in a written statement.