For some time, there has been a call to overhaul New York state’s juvenile justice system. The movement to "raise the age" may be getting a boost from a higher power.
The U.S. Justice Department has issued a "statement of interest" in a lawsuit seeking to end the solitary confinement of juveniles in an Onondaga County jail.
New York Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Phil Desgranges says the suit challenges the ongoing practice at the Onondaga County Justice Center in Syracuse of holding 16- and 17-year-olds in isolation. "We filed the lawsuit in September of 2016 after months of investigating solitary confinement at this jail based in Syracuse called the Onondaga County Justice Center."
In December, the NYCLU requested that the court issue an expedited order which, if granted, would require the jail to remove children from solitary confinement.
Desgranges notes that the DOJ statement of interest cites several court rulings that found solitary confinement of juveniles for short periods of time to be unconstitutional.
Some young people spent weeks or months in solitary following relatively small infractions, like cursing at a corrections officer. Albany resident Alicia Barraza's son Benjamin Van Zandt was arrested at age 17 and given 4 to 12 years of prison time, ending up at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Dutchess County. "He did about three and a half years of prison time, and several times they put him into solitary confinement. The last time he was in solitary confinement he took his own life." In October 2014, Van Zandt was found hanging in his cell.
Desgranges says juveniles are often placed in solitary cells next to adults who threaten them with assault, sexual harassment or other abuse, and the vast majority are being held simply because their families cannot afford bail. "Some of these juveniles are suffering severe mental harm as a result of their placement in isolation. They're developing mental illnesses, developing suicidal thoughts, one juvenile in particular cut his wrists after being in solitary for just one day. All these real strong evidences of harm, I think, for us, gave us such concern that we could not wait for this case to be resolved after a number of years, and so we moved for an expedited order, so we requested that the court order that this jail stop placing juveniles in solitary. That was the motion that we filed in December of 2016."
Albany area activists have long campaigned for raising the age of criminal responsibility. Sean Collins is with Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration, which calls on local law enforcement officials and agencies to use discretion in dealing with juveniles. "Use greater discretion to provide more leniency and more compassion in the system, and do what they can now, even though there isn't a law on the books to divert 16- and 17-year-olds away from prisons."
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Desgranges says the mere fact that the federal government has weighed in on the Onondaga situation underscores the need to end solitary confinement for juveniles, something the federal government and New York state already have done. He expects a ruling in a month or so. The NYCLU would like to see the case resolved "as soon as possible."
A spokesperson for County Executive Joanie Mahoney tells Syracuse-area media she finds the issue very troubling and is working toward a better solution. Her office did not respond to multiple requests for comment by WAMC.