U.N. Criticizes U.S. for Incarcerating Youth in Adult Jails and Prisons

March 27 2014. By Deborah LaBelle and Cindy Soohoo, CUNY School of Law

Today, the U.N. Human Rights Committee (“Committee”) criticized a broad range of U.S. laws and policies that treat youth under 18 as adults in the criminal justice system. “The Human Rights Committee’s statements reflect international consensus and a common sense understanding that youth are different than adults and that subjecting them to adult criminal punishments is a human rights violation,” says Cindy Soohoo, director of the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic (IWHR) at the City University of New York School of Law.

“We hope that the Committee’s observations and recommendations will support efforts to get youth out of the adult criminal justice system and end the practice of incarcerating them in adult jails and prisons,” says Deborah LaBelle, director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative. “Placing youth in adult facilities puts them in a perilous situation where they are at great risk of physical and sexual violence and are subjected to conditions inappropriate for their age and developmental maturity.”

The Committee’s statements were made in Concluding Observations issued following a two-day review of the U.S.’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that occurred earlier this month. The Committee is composed of independent human rights experts from around the world.

In its Concluding Observations, the Committee expressed concern that youth under 18 can be tried in adult courts and incarcerated in adult institutions through state laws that exclude 16- and 17-year-olds from juvenile court jurisdiction. It emphasized that the U.S. should “ensure that all juveniles are separated from adults during pretrial detention and after sentencing and that juveniles are not transferred to adult courts.” It emphasized that “States that automatically exclude 16- and 17-year-olds from juvenile court jurisdictions should be encouraged to change their laws.”

The Committee also took a hard line on the extreme sentences and punishments that are imposed on youth in the adult criminal justice system. It stated that the U.S. should abolish solitary confinement for anyone under 18.

The Committee expressed concern that despite recent Supreme Court cases prohibiting life without parole sentences for juveniles in certain circumstances, such sentences can still be imposed. It emphasized that the U.S. should prohibit all juvenile life without parole sentences.

Advocates from IWHR and the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative were in Geneva during the review to raise the issue of the youth in adult jails and prisons. Before the review, they submitted an initial shadow report and a follow-up report to the Human Rights Committee.

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