“My team was up until midnight last night,” Senator Cory Booker said about a bipartisan criminal justice reform deal expected to be announced Thursday.
The deal, according to the Washington Post, is expected to address sentencing reform, correctional reform, re-entry programs for former prisoners and juvenile incarceration.
“It’s good progress in the right direction,” Booker said to at a Fusion sponsored event on juvenile justice reform in the Capitol building Wednesday afternoon.“I’ve been working on these negotiations and my bar is high,” said Booker, who introduced legislation banning solitary confinement in March. “If the deal stays as it is, it will get my full-throated support.”
Booker announced the deal at a preview of “Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children,” the Fusion documentary which details the negative impact of locking up more than 60,000 American juveniles, a number higher than any other country in the world.
Based on the information and stories told through the film, Booker’s announcement came at the right time.
In 2011 as many as 95,000 youth were held in prisons and jails, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. A significant number of those jails and prisons enforce solitary confinement. As of 2010 incarcerated juveniles declined by one third since 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Right now there are roughly 60,000 incarcerated youth, a number “Prison Kids” says is still too high. The documentary blames high rates of poverty, racism, and and lack of access to quality education for locking up and keeping down some of America’s most needy youth.
Two thirds of juveniles in the system are non-violent offenders, and a report out of the National Bureau of Economic Research found that in 2011 kids entered into the system were 22 percentage points more likely to return to prison than kids who were monitored in their home. According to the Sentencing Project, an organization that works to decrease prison sentencing, black youths made up 28% of juvenile arrests in 2011, even though they only accounted for 16% of all American children.
The juvenile justice system affects youth of color disproportionately. “Within the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, young people of color are disproportionately represented at every stage, from arrest to sentencing,” said an ACLU report on solitary confinement of youth.
“The solution isn’t just at the federal level,” said Booker. The senator insisted states employ more resources to mental health counsel and drug addiction treatment and help for survivors of sexual assault. “Every state in the nation has to do more,” he said.
“We seem to be a country comfortable with spending grievous amounts on backend [prisons] than smaller amounts on the front end,” Senator Booker said.
The issue of jails and prisons putting youth in solitary confinement was also explored by “Prison Kids”. One of the film’s subject’s, Savana, explained that she’d been held in solitary for 23 hours. The ACLU claims solitary confinement negatively impacts youth more than it does adults.
“The solitary confinement of adults can cause serious pain and suffering and can violate international human rights and US constitutional law,” the report said. “But the potential damage to young people, who do not have the maturity of an adult and are at a particularly vulnerable, formative stage of life, is much greater.”
Senator Booker highlighted another population oft left out of the conversation. “[LGBT youth] are often the most vulnerable, most often victimized,” said Booker.
The senator insisted that juvenile justice is a bipartisan issue. “This isn’t a left or right issue,” he said. Whether you’re a Christian, a libertarian or liberal, he said, the issue is a moral one.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.