Harsh and unequal treatment of minors in the juvenile justice system came under scrutiny Wednesday during a congressional hearing on incarceration in America.
The hearing before the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform took place as bipartisan momentum builds to negotiate sentencing reforms and other measures aimed at creating a fairer, smarter, more cost-effective criminal-justice system. The session took place a day after President Obama delivered a speech encouraging Congress to pursue reforms rolling back mass incarceration for low-level offenses. The president also urged changes to address a so-called school-to-prison pipeline affecting mostly lower-income and struggling communities.
“If you are a parent, you know that there are times where boys and girls are going to act out in school. And the question is: Are we letting principals and parents deal with one set of kids and we call the police on another set of kids? That's not the right thing to do,” Obama said during a speech Tuesday before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s annual convention in Philadelphia.
At the hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, lawmakers heard testimony from Liz Ryan, a long-time juvenile justice reform advocate who recently founded the Youth First! Initiative. The Washington, D.C.-based group wants to end the jailing of minors for lower-level offenses and roll back laws requiring 16-year-olds to be tried as adults.
Ryan started her testimony by recounting the tragic jailing—and eventual suicide—of 16-year-old Kaylief Browder, an African-American boy from the Bronx who was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack in 2010. He was automatically charged as an adult under New York State law. Browder’s family could not afford $3,000 in bail, so he was held at New York City’s Rikers Island pending trial. He was assigned a public defender, yet ended up languishing in the notorious jail for three years of harrowing abuse—before he was even called to trial.
“For a year during his stay at Rikers, he was placed in solitary confinement,” Ryan said. In 2013, charges were dropped against Browder, and he was released. He committed suicide last month.
“Like Kalief Browder, who was detained for taking a backpack,” Ryan told lawmakers, “most youth who are detained or incarcerated in the justice system do not pose a serious threat to public safety.”
In fact, she testified, “according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Justice, three quarters of the youth incarcerated in the juvenile justice system are locked up for offenses that pose little to no threat to public safety such as probation violations, status offenses [like running away and truancy], property and public order offenses, and drug offenses.”