President Obama recently announced that he will issue a series of executive orders to address prison reform following recommendations from the US Justice Department. 1 The Obama administration’s agenda hopes to address current problems with the criminal justice system to make it “fairer, to be smarter, to be more effective.”2
Among the changes is an end to solitary confinement for juveniles and for those who committed low-level infractions. The proposed changes are aimed only at the federal prison population and are said to affect around 10,000 federal inmates, but will not affect inmates serving time in state prisons.3
Today, there are more than 2.4 million Americans in prison in America; this accounts for about 5% of the global prison population making the United States the most heavily incarcerated country in the world. 4 Clearly there is a problem with mass incarceration in this country. Though this reform is certainly progress in protecting human rights, it will likely do nothing to address the serious problem of prison overpopulation.
Who Will Benefit from Reform
- Juveniles: Solitary confinement for juveniles will be banned. However, it is rare for a juvenile to be placed in solitary confinement.5 This is a victory toward more humane treatment of prisoners, albeit a small one.
- The Mentally Ill: The reform seeks to expand treatment for the mentally ill as well. Excluding juveniles, there are as many as 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement today. The reform calls for increasing time inmates in solitary confinement are allowed to spend outside of their cells, but this may not be enough considering that 60 percent of inmates whose solitary confinement cases were reviewed had serious underdiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses.6 More resources need to be allocated to identify those already suffering from mental illness in prison.
There are upwards of 25,000 inmates serving months or even years in solitary confinement with almost no human contact, which is arguably cruel and unusual.7 The new rules restrict the how long inmates who break prison rules for the first time can spend in solitary confinement. Now, the longest an inmate can be given solitary confinement for a first offense is 60 days. The previous current maximum was 365 days.8 However, studies show that any solitary confinement only exasperates mental illness, and even 60 days can potentially cause irreversible damage.9
- Low-level offenders: The latest Obama executive order prohibits solitary confinement for those who were convicted of low-level infractions. However, there is seemingly no clear guidance on what would constitute a ‘low-level infraction’ and without it, it’s possible that arbitrary solitary punishment could continue.
Do You Agree with Obama’s Prison Reform?
Do you think Obama’s changes are a good idea? How do you think inmates should be punished if they break prison rules? Do you think the reform does enough to combat the problems with our criminal justice system?
We want to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please join the discussion in the comments section below.
1. http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2016/01/obama-ends-solitary-confinement-juveniles href=”#ref1″>↩
2. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/11/02/remarks-president-criminal-justice-reform href=”#ref2″>↩
4. https://news.vice.com/article/its-time-to-kick-americas-mass-incarceration-addiction?utm_source=vicenewsfb href=”#ref4″>↩