What is Real Reform?

From Erin Davies, 2/22/16, 8:37 AM:

Damn, that’s sobering.


Not quite the response I had hoped for.


Erin – executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition – was responding to a point of clarification I had asked of her about an announcement that had criminal justice advocates, including me, buzzing this past month.


We’ve just finished the first month of the semester of Buckeye REACH at Franklin County Juvenile Detention Facility in Downtown Columbus, where the volunteers have been doing a crash course on the importance of politics and voting with the guys. President Obama inevitably came up, and in the mix a security guard mentioned the news: that the President had announced a ban on solitary confinement for youth and low-level offenders.  


“What? We ain’t seen that,” raised one of the youth – reminding us in true form that policy headlines often don’t translate into our people’s realities. “Well…that’s because states don’t actually have to follow it. We ain’t doin it in Columbus.” The reply was close; it’s actually because the executive actions are a ban for federal, not state, prisons. An indisputable jurisdiction considering we live in a federalist system, but an important distinction to note nonetheless.


Considering this, I looked into the numbers. How many juveniles does this landmark policy protect? Here’s the sobering part: 26. I had contacted Erin thinking that, considering the fanfare surrounding the announcement, I had missed some segment of the population in that number. But because youth in the federal system only really come from Native American reservations or D.C., a count this low should be expected.


I say this not to undermine the importance of the President’s ban. Every person, especially a child, who benefits from a less punitive criminal system is worth a celebration. I say this as a reminder that we cannot afford to become complacent. This ban cannot be the dusting of the civic arena’s hands at juvenile justice reform; its greatest use is as a tool for advocates to leverage at the state level to follow the federal’s suit. I find no point in patting ourselves on the back in Ohio because our juvenile justice policies are considered some of the most progressive in the country – considering the overhauls the state still needs to make, it only serves as a reminder of how severe the situation is nationally. Our function, rather, should be momentum. In 2014, Ohio’s Department of Youth Services struck an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to “dramatically reduce, and eventually eliminate, its use of seclusion on young people in its custody.” With the usual necessity for legislative change in the U.S. to be led by example, such a step will hopefully contribute to a model to be followed by states that have not taken action yet, and along with it bring a reduction in solitary for adults as well.
When it comes down to it, we should not be incarcerating children at all. The effects of institutionalization have been incapacitating generations for years, and that we have to fight to safeguard youth from this extreme an injury – that of solitary confinement – feels like a concession. It’s proof that we cannot rely on the system to reform itself – the word “hopefully,” voiced by Obama and reluctantly echoed by myself just sentences ago, creates space for complacency between us and that end goal of deincarceration. And if we only accept the concessions, doing nothing to generate community power and push for even more legislative momentum, the state will not help us span it.