Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Ms. Guffy writes:
The United States finds itself on the sidelines as the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”). The U.S. is one of only three nations that hasn’t ratified the CRC. Opponents to the treaty claim that the U.S. doesn’t need to ratify the treaty because our laws sufficiently protect children. A recent review of the U.S. by the UN Committee Against Torture highlighting the treatment of children in adult jails and prisons, however, proves this assumption to be tragically inaccurate.
In November, the United States told the U.N. Committee Against Torture that 7,400 children under 18 are currently incarcerated in adult jails and prisons. As detailed in a report submitted to the Committee by the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at CUNY Law School, children incarcerated in adult facilities experience multiple human rights violations. Among the most gut-wrenching consequences of locking children up in adult facilities are staggeringly high levels of physical and sexual abuse. In a survey conducted by IWHR and the Michigan ACLU, more than a third of children in Michigan prisons reported sexual assault by staff, other prisoners, or both. A recent DOJ report investigating conditions at New York’s Riker’s Island jail exposed systematic abuse and extremely high levels of staff violence against incarcerated 16-18 years olds. The report noted that correctional officials purposely beat youth "off camera" and that civilian teachers contribute to the culture of violence by “looking the other way” so as to not witness the violence they know is happening. Because youth are often smaller and more vulnerable and less likely to report abuse, they are at greater risk of being victims of violence in adult facilities.
In response, the Committee released recommendations that address the most egregious rights violations that occur when children are funneled into a system designed to punish adults. The Committee recommended that the U.S. end life without parole sentences and the use of solitary confinement for children, adopt standards prohibiting the use of tasers on children and separate children from adult prisoners.
The Committee also recommended that the U.S. implement international minimum standards for juvenile justice and the protection of juveniles deprived of liberty. These standards acknowledge that because of their age and vulnerability, children experience deprivation of liberty acutely. They emphasize that incarceration should be a last resort and that rehabilitative alternatives should be explored. When children are incarcerated they are entitled to special protection that includes an absolute prohibition of incarceration with adults but also requires that facilities and staff be appropriate for children. The standards also recognize that children are still growing and have an incredible capacity for change. They emphasize the need for educational and other programming as well as the need to help children maintain their contacts with their families and communities. Simply put the standards recognize that children are not adults and subjecting them to adult criminal punishment violates their rights.
Adopting the international standard minimum rules to safeguard children in conflict with the law would go a long way to end the most egregious abuses in the criminal justice system. But there are deeper issues at play when a nation’s treatment of its children becomes an issue addressed by the U.N. Committee Against Torture. If children’s rights were truly embraced by the U.S., children would not be funneled into adult penal systems in the first place where traumatizing acts of violence and deprivation occur. The treatment of children in conflict with the law in the U.S. reveals deep flaws in our understanding of children’s rights and the retroactive protections afforded by the Committee are insufficient to address the roots of this injustice.
The CRC, however, explicitly articulates that deprivation the liberty of a child should be the last resort and provides measures for protecting the rights of children in detention. The holistic and comprehensive approach to children’s rights embodied by the CRC would require the United States to deeply examine its treatment of children in a way that brings compassion and accountability to the conversation. It’s time for the United States to commit to building a brighter future for our children by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child.