Two back-to-back decisions on Monday, one by President Barack Obama and one by the Supreme Court, will ease the plight of juvenile offenders who are relegated to solitary confinement in federal prisons and the other will remove the mandatory sentencing of children convicted of homicide to life in prison without parole.
In both instances, this is good news to the African-American community since our young people are disproportionately impacted by these conditions. We hail Obama for keeping his promise to continue the fight for reform on solitary confinement. The practice has no meaningful benefit, and as the president makes abundantly clear, it “has the potential for devastating psychological consequences.”
The executive action also places prohibition on such punishment for minor infractions—a measure that has broad implications for some 10,000 inmates now serving time in solitary confinement. Obama elaborated on this issue in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. And as he moves toward the end of his eight years in office, we in the Black community applaud this gesture that touches on race and the criminal justice system.
“How can we subject prisoner to unnecessary solitary confinement, know its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” he wrote. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”
Solitary confinement, which in most instances means a prisoner is allowed but one hour a day out of confinement, borders on cruel and unusual punishment, and that is a violation of the Eighth Amendment. That amendment is at the core of the recent Supreme Court 6-3 ruling that reversed a lower court decision on mandatory sentencing for children convicted of homicide. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion.
Since 1963, Henry Montgomery, then 17, has been incarcerated and serving a life sentence for killing a white deputy during a climate of racial tension and cross burnings in Baton Rouge, La. Four years ago, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled to strike down the mandatory sentencing law, and Montgomery argued that the new standard should be applied retroactively to his case. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor, thereby overturning the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision.
We are not sure what will be the immediate impact on Montgomery’s circumstances, but it does send a signal to those states such as Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where more than 1,000 people are serving life sentences for crimes they committed before their 18th birthday. If Kennedy had his way, Montgomery would be released, noting the extent of his rehabilitation and his role as a model member of the prison community.
The court’s decision, however, does not rule out the possibility of teenagers being sentenced to life in prison. But it does, like Obama’s action on solitary confinement, begin to indicate some marginal steps in reforming elements of our criminal justice system that are unfair and often inhumane.
Recent news suggests that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is being considered in Congress and has reportedly gained bipartisan support. Any time we can get the three branches of government moving on criminal justice reform has got to be the best news we can get in communities of color and elsewhere. But just because we have a semblance of reform doesn’t mean it’s time to relax and drop our guard. These incremental steps should be merely an opportunity to renew our advocacy, to take advantage of what may be only a temporary momentum toward justice and fair play.
Now onto Rikers Island and the correction officers there.