Juvenile Solitary Confinement

The SPA Policy Explainer

On January 25, 2016, President Barack Obama wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post entitled “Why we must rethink solitary confinement.” The president laid out an argument against juvenile solitary confinement, describing its effects and consequences.

Caroline Cooper, director of SPA’s Justice Programs Office, joined the SPA Policy Explainer to comment on the President’s latest criminal reform initiative. Her analysis points to the symbolic significance of this reform. However, she notes that this new thinking in the United States lags behind much of the globe.

What is the significance of President Obama’s call to end juvenile solitary confinement?

Cooper: Well I think that his op-ed piece was really remarkable. One of the last paragraphs said it all, which is that we are a country that believes in second chances. The whole concept of our justice system should be on giving second chances, as well as protecting public safety. The idea of juveniles in solitary confinement is so inconsistent with this opportunity, with adolescent development, and juvenile needs in particular.

Who will be affected?

Cooper: I think that there are relatively few juveniles that will be directly affected by this. I hope that it sends a message that states will pick up on — where most of the juveniles in this country are incarcerated. It’s particularly important because it coincides with several recent Supreme Court decisions that also bar life imprisonment for juveniles.

How does this policy compare to other countries worldwide?

Cooper: It’s really interesting because in the United States everyone is saying this is a great move. Across the globe people are appalled that we ever did this in the first place. I think we have to look back and see where our policies have been, and where we need to be going — particularly human rights and so many of the international conventions that deal with juvenile rights.

I think its about that last sentence in President Obama’s op-ed: “We are a country that believes in second chances.” That’s where our justice system needs to go. This is a major first step for the United States — though [juvenile solitary confinement] is not something to be proud that it ever existed.


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