Human Rights Watch: U.S. Juvenile Justice Policies Fall Short

The United States took a hit in its chapter of Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2015, which, among other things, investigated the racial biases and treatment of juveniles within the nation’s criminal justice system.

HRW noted, for example, that African American men are six times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. Part of this problem may stem from unfair drug policies and prejudices within drug arrests, where African Americans “represent 31 percent of all drug arrests and 41 percent of state and 42 percent of federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses” while both blacks and whites “engage in drug offenses at comparable rates.”

“The point of the World Report is to apply the same human rights standards to all countries, including the United States,” said Alison Parker, HWR’s United States Program Director. “Our hope in releasing the report is to raise awareness among the public and the press about what we have investigated in the previous year and have determined to be some of the more serious human rights problems around the world.”

Statistics from the NAACP and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice show that this racial disparity in arrests affects African Americans of all ages. Fifty-eight percent of youth admitted to state prisons are black, making up 26 percent of juvenile arrests. These arrests often leave lasting effects on youths, scarred not only by the prison experience but also by a record that hinders reintegration in society through education and jobs.

“Although African Americans are only 13 percent of the US population, they represent 31 percent of all drug arrests and 41 percent of state and 42 percent of federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses,” according to the report. “African Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.”

Becky Pettit and Bruce Western’s Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course states that, “Ex-prisoners earn lower wages and experience more unemployment than similar men who have not been incarcerated.” Reports have also found they are less likely to get married or cohabit with the mothers of their children – while getting locked up, by eroding employment and marriage opportunities, may also provide a pathway back into crime.

HWR investigated the harsh sentences placed upon juveniles arrested and tried in the United States.

“A policy that we have in the United States that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the world,” according to Parker, is that the United States tries children, meaning people under the age of 18, in adult court, confines them in adult jails, and sentences them to adult sentences.”

By the end of 2013 HWR stated that 1,200 children were being held in adult facilities, allowing children to fall into the “life course” of incarceration and hindering personal growth. This is especially true for juveniles placed in solitary confinement, a sentence that both Ohio and New York, for example, have been working to eliminate.

“What we have found in our research is that young people are in particular need of social contact,” Parker said. “Their brains are developing, their bodies are developing, and they need the basic human contact that comes from not being locked up in a cell 23 hours out of the day.”

Parker was critical of U.S. policy allowing minors to be sentenced to life without parole, a sentence she and other advocates say does not account for a child’s ability to change and develop.

“Human right’s law is clear that children should not be mandatorily tried as adults and should not be subjected to such excessive sentences, including the very excessive sentence that the US uses, which is life without the possibility of parole. This means that these children are sentenced to die in prison.”

The report comes as President Barack Obama has budgeted for an increase in juvenile justice spending that most observers say is unlikely to occur. Indeed, federal spending on juvenile justice has been more than halved over the last dozen years.

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