Rethinking our solitary policies

Growing concerns about the use of solitary confinement in our justice system have led to some changes at federal prisons. Recently, President Obama issued executive orders based on a recent Justice Department study that include a ban on solitary confinement of juveniles, and also forbid using isolation to punish low-level infractions by adults. In the future, inmates subjected to solitary confinement will be granted more time outside their cells.

Several states, California, Colorado and New Mexico among them, have already taken steps to curtail the use of solitary confinement. By adding federal prisons to the list, the president has provided a model for other states.

In the near term, though, the actual impact of his decision, especially for juveniles, will be modest. While an estimated 10,000 federal prisoners are currently serving time in solitary confinement, very few are minors. Federal officials say just 13 juveniles were isolated from September 2014 to September 2015. But according to The Washington Post, adults were sent to solitary confinement for nearly 4,000 violent offenses during the 2014 fiscal year.

Mr. Obama’s concern for the incarcerated, especially young minority males, has emerged as a prominent and welcome theme in the final years of his presidency. In the U.S. Senate, meanwhile, a bipartisan group is promoting a bill to ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in most prisons, both state and federal.

A growing body of research has pointed to the profoundly destructive effects of solitary confinement, and even linked it to higher recidivism rates. While some prison officials see such confinement as a crucial element of controlling a dangerous population, this data should be carefully analyzed. The Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Members of both parties have begun talking about trying to improve the criminal justice system overall, given the large number of Americans behind bars, particularly African-Americans. Among the more urgent priorities: revising onerous sentencing rules that may affect people who are not a serious threat to the public and improving treatment options for mentally ill inmates. We also must work much harder to steer young males away from criminal behavior and onto the path of being productive citizens.

In a helpful development, the U.S. Supreme Court continues to enlarge its view that juvenile offenders should be treated more leniently than adults. Last month, the court revisited a 2012 ruling that mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional, holding that this standard should apply retroactively. About 2,000 people sentenced before the 2012 decision was announced should now receive a chance at parole.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy noted, some juvenile offenders may indeed exhibit "irretrievable depravity." But, given the way young brains change with maturity, many more are still malleable enough for rehabilitation.

The Providence Journal