Last week, Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) introduced SB 970, which would define and limit the use of solitary confinement on minors at state and county juvenile correctional facilities.
“There is a tremendous body of evidence that subjecting minors to solitary confinement makes them more dangerous and anti-social,” said Senator Yee, a child psychologist. “Juveniles sent to solitary are more likely to reoffend, more likely to commit suicide, and more likely to suffer a lifetime mental illness. Its widespread use is counter-productive and shameful, and this bill will finally bring some common sense restrictions to its practice.”
Nationally, over half of the youth who committed suicide while in a correctional facility were in solitary confinement and 62 percent had a history of being placed in solitary confinement. Research shows that individuals forced into solitary confinement had much higher rates of recidivism and mental illness, according to a release from the Senator’s office.
While the United Nations has called on all countries to prohibit solitary confinement in juvenile cases, the harsh measure is commonly used in juvenile facilities throughout California. Six states – Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Alaska – ban solitary confinement for “punitive reasons.”
In 2011, a CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) internal audit found that youth were often locked up in their cells for over 21 hours a day. In one 15-week period, there were 249 incidents of solitary confinement, and in one case, a youth received only one hour out of his cell in a 10-day period. In local juvenile facilities, there have been reports of youth locked up in isolation for 23 hours a day.
“As we work to restore common sense discipline policies in our schools, we must also make sure our criminal justice system focuses first on rehabilitation, not retribution,” said co-author Assemblyman Steven Bradford. “I thank Senator Yee for recognizing that young people in our corrections system–who are disproportionately black and Latino males–deserve the chance to prove themselves as valuable members of society. Placing them in solitary confinement will do nothing to ease our near-70 percent recidivism rate that fails our young people, and fails our state.”
“Being locked down makes you feel that you are worthless to society; that you don’t even want to be yourself.” said Tanisha Denard, who was held in solitary confinement as a juvenile. “You start to think about any way to escape – even if it means suicide.”
“In the case of some with pre-existing mental disorders, solitary confinement can cause severe exacerbation of symptoms inducing panic attacks and hallucinations,’ said Randall Hagar of the California Psychiatric Association. “In ordinary inmates, solitary confinement can induce a range of psychiatric problems, starting with aberrations in thinking, concentration and memory, and in extreme cases to paranoia and aggression. We expose juveniles to these influences when they are in stages of development where their brains are still maturing and we risk permanent developmental harm to those young brains.”
Among the provisions of SB 970:
- Defines solitary confinement as the involuntary placement in a room or cell in isolation from persons other than staff and attorneys.
- Provides that solitary confinement shall only be used when a minor poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility, and all other less restrictive options have been exhausted.
- Provides that a minor or ward shall only be held in solitary confinement for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk.
- Empowers existing county juvenile justice commissions to report on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.
SB 210 passed last week in the California State Senate and it is headed for the Assembly. The bill would revise the facts that the judge or magistrate would consider in setting bail. It would require them to consider the history and characteristics of the defendant, and to consider the nature and circumstances of the offense.
The bill would require a judge or magistrate to also consider those factors when determining conditions for pretrial release. It would allow those least like to re-offend or skip their future court dates to be released from custody and put on pretrial supervision, which would be similar to probation.
This would resolve some of the pretrial custody problems where more than two-thirds of county jail inmates statewide are awaiting trial, doing time without having been convicted of a crime.
In an op-ed co-written by the public defenders of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, and San Francisco Counties, they argue that in the Bay Area, “it costs more than $100 a day to keep someone behind bars. By contrast, pretrial supervision can cost as little as $2.50.”
Public Defenders Brendon Woods, Robin Lipetzky Jose Varela, and Jeff Adachi argue, “The problem is only getting worse. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that average bail amounts have increased by more than $30,000 between 1992 and 2006. San Francisco is no exception. On Jan. 1, the local court raised its bail schedule for most offenses by tens of thousands of dollars without explanation.”
They note, “Under current law, each local court may set its bail schedule as it sees fit without any public input or review. It is no surprise that poor people are the casualties of this wealth-based bail system, which coerces them to plead guilty even if they are innocent.”
“A 2012 study by the Justice Policy Institute found in as high as a quarter to half of cases nationally, the detained individual pleads guilty just to get out of jail and back to their jobs and families,” they write.
Moreover, they argue, “Long pretrial detentions disproportionately affect communities of color. Numerous studies have shown that African-Americans are assigned higher bail amounts and are less likely to be released on their own recognizance.”
“SB 210 is not an untested idea,” they continue. “Three California counties have already implemented similar programs, using risk assessment tools to determine which defendants pose threats to public safety.”
They write, “The evidence-based method has proved wildly effective. In Santa Clara, 88 percent of defendants released on pretrial supervision made their court dates and 98 percent did not re-offend. Sacramento was able to reduce its pretrial jail population to 55 percent while 95 percent of those released made their court dates. In Santa Cruz, 92 percent of those released did not re-offend, and 89 percent attended all of their mandatory court appearances.”