Redeeming America’s Criminal Justice System: Proposed Legislation Would Be an Important Step Toward Reform

“Being in a room over 21 hours a day is like a waking nightmare, like you want to scream but you can’t. You want to stretch your legs, walk for more than a few feet. You feel trapped. Life becomes distorted. You shower, eat, sleep, and defecate in the same tiny room. In the same small sink, you ‘shower,’ quench your thirst, wash your hands after using the toilet, and warm your cold dinner in a bag. I developed techniques to survive. I keep a piece of humanity inside myself that can’t be taken away by the guards . . . There’s no second chance here.”

– Lino Silva

Every day in the United States of America, children are held in solitary confinement or other forms of isolation. This practice has been shown to cause physical, psychological, and developmental harm, and increased risk of suicide. Only six states currently have any type of restriction on the use of juvenile solitary confinement, but a bill introduced by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) on Tuesday, July 11, 2014, would ban the practice and enact other much-needed reforms of our criminal justice system.

The Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act of 2014 (the REDEEM Act), cosponsored by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), would prohibit the isolation of children in juvenile detention centers except as a temporary response to behavior of a juvenile that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm. It would require juvenile detention facilities to attempt to use less restrictive techniques before resorting to isolation and cap the amount of time a child may be isolated at three hours. It would also require one-on-one supervision and access to hygienic and mental health services during the brief time the child is isolated.

While a prohibition against juvenile solitary confinement might strike some as the most important reform proposed by the legislation, as its short title suggests, this is but a secondary goal. The bill would also enact reforms with regard to people’s criminal and juvenile delinquency records. For offenses that are not violent or sexual in nature, the REDEEM Act would provide:

– Records of offenses committed before the person turned 15 shall be automatically expunged when the person turns 18.

– Records of juvenile offenses shall be automatically sealed 3 years after the completion of the entire sentence, provided the person has no subsequent convictions, adjudications, or pending criminal or juvenile delinquency proceedings.

– Juveniles may petition the courts for sealing or expungement of records, even if the preceding two conditions are not met.

– Any person, regardless of age, shall have the right to petition the court to seal records of criminal proceedings against him or her one year after the completion of the entire sentence, or on the day the case is disposed of if no conviction or sentence is imposed.

– The court shall appoint counsel for any petitioner under the age of 18 to assist with the expungement or sealing hearing.

– The court may appoint counsel for any petitioner over the age of 18 if the hearing is expected to be complex or there is a high potential of adverse testimony from the government or victims.

In addition to prohibiting juvenile solitary confinement and establishing better procedures for the expungement and sealing of records, the bill would also remove barriers to public assistance for people with non-violent, non-sexual convictions and prohibit the sharing of incomplete or inaccurate records.

As approximately one in three Americans knows first-hand, any involvement with “the system,” can have long-term, even life-long, repercussions. In particular, a past felony conviction, or as it’s sometimes called, an “F on one’s report card,” can be a substantial barrier to employment. In addition, many states also bar aid for those with drug convictions.

Because of this, many people, upon release from prison, find themselves with extremely limited resources, support, and employment prospects, and become entrapped in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. The REDEEM Act seeks to strengthen America’s economy and communities by breaking the cycle and providing a path to rehabilitation for people who pose minimal risk to society.

This bill would not reach people charged or convicted of crimes of violence or crimes of a sexual nature. What it would do is implicitly acknowledge that the war on drugs is a war against ourselves, and it is time to de-escalate hostilities. As one commentator has pointed out, the REDEEM Act has an uncertain future, considering the Senate’s seeming dysfunction at the moment. But at the very least it is exciting to see a bipartisan bill aimed at criminal justice reform, and it could be a harbinger of better, more intelligent policies to come.

Surely people convicted of non-violent, non-sexual crimes who have completed their sentences deserve a chance to redeem themselves. But perhaps it is the criminal justice system itself that is most in need of redemption.

The text of the REDEEM Act can be found here.

All of the information about juvenile solitary confinement, as well the quote at the beginning of this post, are from this report by the ACLU.