WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senators James Lankford R-Okla., and Cory Booker D-N.J., on Tuesday introduced the MERCY Act, a bipartisan bill that would prohibit the solitary confinement of juveniles who are tried in the federal system and held in pretrial facilities or juvenile detention facilities.
“I’m glad to work on this bipartisan legislation with a group of senators who believe in rehabilitation and redemption,” said Lankford. “Young people who have been convicted of a crime should pay their debt, but their time behind bars should also be used to prepare to be a successful returning citizen. Allowing juveniles to remain a part of the general prison population, unless absolutely unavoidable, ensures they are able to have access to education and rehabilitative services and utilize other opportunities to make their transition back into society as smooth as possible.”
“Solitary confinement is a cruel and demeaning violation of human dignity,” said Booker. “When imposed on youth, it can cause serious long-term physical and psychological harm. If we want our criminal justice system to reflect our founding principles as a nation of liberty and justice for all, we must promote a more compassionate, common-sense approach to rehabilitating young people who have lost their way.”
This criminal justice reform legislation is also co-sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin D-Ill., Rand Paul R-Ky., Bob Casey D-Pa., and Mike Lee R-Utah. 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 to 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.
• 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 three hours and to juveniles who pose a risk of harm to themselves to no more than half an hour. It requires juveniles be removed from room confinement once the risk of harm subsides.
• Requires post-confinement services: After the maximum periods of confinement expires, the bill mandates that juveniles be transferred to a facility where services can be provided.
The following organizations have supported the MERCY Act: National Juvenile Defenders Center, Juvenile Law Center, Campaign for Youth Justice, Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, Justice for Families, Justice Policy Institute, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, National Disability Rights Network, National Juvenile Justice Network, The Sentencing Project, and Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project.