Bipartisan Coalition of House Members Introduce Legislation to Ban Juvenile Solitary Confinement
Washington, D.C. (Feb. 7, 2017)—Today, Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD), Mia Love (R-UT), Raúl Labrador (R-ID), John Conyers (D-MI), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), and Karen Bass (D-CA) introduced the Maintaining dignity and Eliminating unnecessary Restrictive Confinement of Youths Act of 2017 (MERCY Act). The MERCY Act would prohibit the solitary confinement of juveniles who are tried in the federal system and held in pretrial facilities or juvenile detention facilities, barring some extremely exceptional temporary circumstances. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), James Lankford (R-OK), Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced the bill in the Senate.
“Our criminal justice system is broken, especially when it comes to how we approach juvenile offenders – focusing on retribution instead of rehabilitation,” said Maloney, original co-sponsor of the MERCY Act. “Holding children and adolescents in solitary confinement is barbaric, detrimental to their health and can be extremely harmful to their development both mentally and physically. The MERCY Act takes an important step towards breaking the cycle of incarceration and gives young offenders the opportunity to become contributing members of our schools and community after they have served their time.”
“When our youth are incarcerated, they are often already forced to reckon with the stark reality of the consequences of their actions—such as being separated from their friends and family and grappling with uncertain futures,” Cummings said. “Compounding incarceration with solitary confinement can break a young person’s spirt beyond repair, and it can have devastating long-term impacts on their mental and physical health. The MERCY Act will take a strong step toward eliminating this barbaric practice, so that we can ensure our youth have a chance to be rehabilitated and become contributing members of their communities.”
“Our corrections system should not just administer justice but also aim to rehabilitate – not create new or exacerbate existing problems,” Love said. “Unfortunately, extended solitary confinement is linked to a host of long-term psychological issues. By ending its long-term use, this legislation preserves the dignity of individuals and protects their mental health. I am proud to join with my colleagues in introducing this legislation and look forward to helping move these reforms forward.”
Labrador said, “Reforming our criminal justice system demands a focus on long-term outcomes. Solitary confinement of juveniles presents serious risk to the mental and physical health of young offenders who will return to our communities. We must ensure that incarceration practices don’t hinder their development as we work to set them on a path to become responsible, law-abiding members of society.”
Conyers said, “We must reinforce actions taken by President Obama last year with respect to solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal system by enacting legislation to address this serious issue. As he noted, solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences, and this is particularly so with respect to juveniles. Over time, we have come to recognize these negative impacts and it is time that Congress act. Pursuing smarter strategies for dealing with challenges posed by individual prisoners, especially juveniles, will lead to more effective prison administration, a reduction in recidivism, and safer communities. ”
“I am glad to see meaningful criminal justice reform incorporate the valuable insights offered by the MERCY Act in the pursuit of policy change to remedy the inhumane and harsh treatment suffered by juveniles and youth involved in our justice system,” Jackson Lee said. “I am delighted to be an original co-sponsor of this critical legislation and much needed effort to alleviate the cruel, brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement that prevent adolescent rehabilitation and participation in reentry programming. As I have often stated in the past, ‘meaningful criminal justice reform must look at all the ways the system touches the lives of our young people and communities and recognize that restoring their vulnerable population requires trauma-informed and age appropriate care. This legislation is step toward catapulting this nation into action on criminal and juvenile justice reform.”
“The MERCY Act rightly calls attention to the need for smart reform and trauma-informed care for all justice-involved youth and is a necessary piece of legislation that aims to eliminate harmful and dangerous confinement practices for this vulnerable population. It is time we start addressing the underlying issues of trauma and abuse, as well as the emotionally damaging triggers of adolescent behaviors in a humane and medically informed way. The bottom line here is that cruel and inhumane conditions of confinement for youth in America must stop,” Bass said.
The solitary confinement of young people is a serious and widespread problem in the United States. Each day, in jails and prisons across America, youth under the age of 18 are held in solitary confinement often for weeks or months at a time. In 2011 alone, more than 95,000 youth were held in prisons and jails, and a significant number were held in solitary confinement. In 2013, the Department of Justice found that 47 percent of juvenile detention centers locked youth in solitary confinement for more than four hours at a time, and some held youth for up to 23 hours a day with no human interaction.
When subjected to solitary confinement, adolescents are often denied access to treatment and programming that would meet their psychological, developmental, and rehabilitative needs. Because youths are still developing, solitary confinement often seriously harms their mental and physical health, as well as their development.
The Maintaining dignity and Eliminating unnecessary Restrictive Confinement of Youths Act (MERCY Act):
- Bans Juvenile Solitary Confinement. The MERCY Act bans the use of “room confinement” in juvenile facilities, except as a temporary response to a behavioral issue that poses serious and immediate risk to any individual.
- Requires Use of Less Restrictive Techniques. The bill ensures that before a juvenile is placed in room confinement, the staff member must use less restrictive techniques, including de-escalation techniques or discussions with a qualified mental health professional.
- Encourages Transparency. The bill mandates that the juvenile be informed of why the room confinement placement occurred and that release will occur upon regaining self-control or after a certain period of time in solitary confinement. It also requires that the juvenile’s attorney and parents be notified when certain actions are taken.
- Places Time Limits on Usage of Confinement. The MERCY Act limits solitary confinement on juveniles that pose a risk of harming others to no more than 3 hours and to juveniles who pose a risk of harm to themselves to no more than half an hour. It requires that juveniles be removed from room confinement once the risk of harm subsides.
- Sets Minimum Conditions of Confinement. The bill ensures that the room used for room confinement in exceptional circumstances have adequate space, lighting, heating, cooling, ventilation, and access to water, toilet facilities, and hygiene supplies.
- Requires Post-Confinement Services. After the maximum period of confinement, the bill mandates that juveniles be transferred to a facility where services can be provided.
- Requires an Analysis. The MERCY Act requires that the Attorney General submit a detailed report to Congress on uses of force, restraints, and room confinement for juveniles.