How We Abandoned the Human Rights of Our Most Vulnerable Citizens
By: James Dold
As the 1994 crime bill was being signed into law two prominent academics began issuing a stark new warning to America about the coming wave of juvenile ‘Super-Predators’ who were more violent and less remorseful than ever before. These children, who were mostly black and brown, were characterized as being Godless, jobless, and fatherless monsters who posed an existential threat to the safety of American society. This tragic confluence of events resulted in two disastrous outcomes. First, states increasingly passed laws making it easier to transfer children into the adult criminal justice system. And second, enticed by funding from the federal crime bill, states increased mandatory minimum sentences and restricted, or in some cases eliminated, parole statutes that permitted early release. Children were hurt most by these events.
Between 1993 and 1996 the number of kids housed in adult jails more than doubled. Dozens of children were sentenced to death and later executed. Nearly 3,000 children were sentenced to life without parole and thousands more were given virtual life sentences. Every year, at least 76,000 children are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system. Nearly 60 percent of these children are black. In some states, like Louisiana, more than 80 percent of people currently incarcerated for crimes committed as children are black. Most of these children have experienced high rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and early childhood trauma, which includes everything from witnessing violence in their homes and in their communities to being physically and sexually abused. Our treatment of children in the criminal justice system is, simply put, the largest government-sanctioned human rights violation against children in the world today.
How is this possible you might ask? After all, international human rights law would seem to categorically prohibit such abuses from happening against children. Indeed, they do. However, the United States is the only nation in the world that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which prohibits sentencing children to death or life without parole, and bars the use of cruel and degrading punishment, such as solitary confinement, from being used on children. Protections also prohibit children from being detained or incarcerated in adult jails or prisons and requires children to be sentenced by different standards than those used for adults. Yet, children are given lengthy mandatory minimum sentences all the time and are sent to adult prisons where they are often placed in solitary confinement for their protection. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) — which the United States is a party to — also prohibits children from being treated in the same manner as adults. Nevertheless, the United States made reservations to this treaty to allow children to be treated as adults in “exceptional circumstances.” The U.N. Human Rights Committee, however, concluded that we do not limit our treatment of children as adults to exceptional circumstances. As a result, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made the observation in 2018 that the United States is violating “children’s human rights on federal, state, and local levels.”
In October Human Rights for Kids released the first ever National State Ratings Report on Human Rights Protections for Children in the U.S. Justice System. The report rates every state on the presence or absence of 12 categories of law that are vital to establishing a basic legal framework to protect the human rights of system-involved youth. Each of the 12 categories are directly informed by human rights principles, specifically those found in the CRC and the ICCPR. This assessment was conducted to establish a national benchmark, to educate the public and public policymakers about how their states measured up to human rights standards, and to challenge all of us to do better by our children. The report recognized California, North Dakota, and Arkansas as the ‘Best Human Rights Protectors’ for children. While Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Wyoming earned the unenviable distinction as the ‘Worst Human Rights Offenders.’ The report concluded that both Republicans and Democrats were leading on these issues and they were also both failing. Most of the nation — 42 states — fell into the bottom two tiers where they made minimal to no efforts to protect the human rights of children in the justice system.
Nelson Mandela said, “there is no keener revelation of a nation’s soul then the way in which it treats its children.” We don’t have to be the only nation in the world that regularly violates the human rights of our children. Our laws should reflect our values and the belief that there is no such thing as a throw-away child. They still can. Republicans and Democrats in Congress, like Bruce Westerman (R-AR) and Tony Cardenas (D-CA), are championing reforms to protect the human rights of children in the justice system. If the next Administration is serious about criminal justice reform and serious about undoing the harm of the 1994 Crime Bill, it should prioritize reforming the way the criminal justice system treats children. That is truly where the fight for our nation’s soul lies.