What the United States and Somalia Have in Common

photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390
photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390

photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that sentences people to die in prison for crimes they committed prior to their eighteenth birthday.  In other words, the United States is unique in that it allows, and in fact sometimes requires, our justice system to sentence individuals to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before turning eighteen years old.  The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child bans sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole.  Besides the United States, Somalia is the only other country that has failed to ratify the treaty.  In many ways an innovative instrument, the convention is the first international treaty enacted to implement minimum standards for the protection of children’s rights, guaranteeing civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights to children.  Focused on the four general principles, non-discrimination, best interests of the child, right to life, survival, and development, and views of the child, the treaty recognizes the special vulnerabilities of children and acknowledges their ever-evolving capabilities.  While the U.S. has failed to ratify the Convention, it has adopted two of its optional provisions, Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, preventing governments from forcing children under the age of eighteen into compulsorily duty in the armed forces and Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography, prohibiting the sale of children as well as child prostitution and pornography.  Additionally, in 1992, the U.S. ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which required rehabilitation to be the focus of juvenile punishment, however the U.S. has reserved the right to sentence juveniles to life without parole in extreme cases involving severe criminals and hardened crimes.

Utilizing the punishment much more often than anywhere else in the world, the practice gained the most support in the 1980s and 1990s when the country saw a spike in violent crimes committed by youth, garnering a wealth of media coverage, and causing politicians to adopt “tough on crime” policies in an attempt to quell public apprehensions.  According to a report by The Sentencing Project, there has been an increase in life sentences given across the board for all offenders, adults and youth alike, with individuals serving life sentences without the possibility of parole increasing by nearly 10,000 in just four years from 2008 to 2012.  By allowing individuals to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed prior to their eighteenth birthday, the United States is neglecting to account for the vast differences that exist between adult and youth offenders, including but not limited to poverty, childhood abuse, and youthfulness in general, all factors that can contribute to the crime committed.  Placing rehabilitation at the center of juvenile punishments acknowledges the notion that youth are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally and because they are continually learning, expanding, and growing, they are capable of benefitting exceptionally from rehabilitation, rather than incarceration.

With about 2,500 youth offenders currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, a change in attitude toward juvenile crimes is definitely needed, but has America recognized this need?  Two recent Supreme Court cases, Graham v. Florida (2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012), may lend support for an answer in the affirmative.  In Graham, the Court stated that because of the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional differences between juveniles and adults, individuals under the age of eighteen at the time of committing a crime cannot be given sentences of life without the possibility of parole unless charged with homicide.  The Court in Miller determined that states cannot imprison juveniles under laws that mandatorily impose life sentences without the possibility of parole as a penalty for homicide.  Viewing the imposition of mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles without considering age and other relevant factors as a violation of the eighth amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, Graham and Miller are steps in the right direction towards recognizing the extensive differences between juvenile and adult offenders. However, yet another question now surfaces.  Should the holding in Miller, with the potential of having life changing effects for thousands of already incarcerated offenders, be applied retroactively to the approximately 2,000 prisoners who are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole under statutes such as the one discussed in Miller?  Youth cannot be given life sentences unless their proceedings are transferred out of the juvenile justice system and into adult court, as no such sentence is available through the juvenile system.  To pose an even broader question, should juveniles ever be transferred to adult court in the first place?  With approximately 2,000 youth offenders convicted under statutes like those outlawed by Miller serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, many of them could potentially be given a second chance by applying the Miller holding retroactively or alternatively, could have benefitted from refusing the transfer of youth to the adult system in the first place.  Furthermore, as a nation, are there things we could be doing on the front end to reduce some of the societal indicators that have a tendency of being associated with youth committing crimes before they turn eighteen?  Some argue that by focusing energy and efforts towards the reduction of child poverty, protection from child abuse, expansion of access to mental health and other support services, and improvement in school quality youth might not end up in a courtroom confronting in a judge in the first place and therefore not have to face the possibility of one of the harshest sentences available, life without the possibility of parole.

Because of their age and continual ongoing development of their brains, youth, as a whole, are arguably more capable of maturing, changing, and growing through rehabilitative efforts than are adults.  Rather than automatically giving up on individuals who commit crimes prior to their eighteenth birthdays, when given the opportunity to rehabilitate by being guided through proper avenues, there is a likely chance that many youth offenders will be able to successfully reenter society.  In light of these notions, supporters of this view would likely advocate for the retroactive application of the Miller holding.  On the other hand, one might argue that the harm to society may be greater in general given the potential juveniles possess for high rates of recidivism.  Opponents and relatives of victims killed by juvenile offenders don’t believe that the youth deserve a second chance, in light of the fact that their victims aren’t afforded the same opportunity.  They would be hard pressed to argue that releasing any of the juveniles currently incarcerated and serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole would serve the overarching goal of protecting the public.

As you get older, your conscience and reasoning capabilities develop and mature, a concept that lends support to the notion that juvenile offenders can particularly benefit from rehabilitation efforts.  The state has a legitimate and compelling interest in protecting society and the juvenile offender alike.  Life sentences without the possibility of parole send a message to society that authorities are “tough on crime” and arguably, are utilized to act as a deterrent to prevent future crimes.  But considering that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for regulating impulse control and emotional response, doesn’t stop developing until one’s mid twenties, can juveniles really be held accountable for weighing short term risks and long term consequences in the same way adults are?  Juvenile offenders, like all offenders, must be held accountable for their behavior and must face consequences for their actions, but is condemning them to die in prison through life sentences without the possibility of parole the best way to handle it?

Shine a Light on Human Trafficking

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300x394.jpg

Many people believe that slavery ended in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  While this is of course true and helped to close the door on a dark period in American history, slavery is in fact still a harsh reality in today’s world.  Regarded as a form of modern day slavery, human trafficking, the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of individuals for the purpose of exploitation, is the fastest growing and most profitable area of organized crime in the world.  With approximately 20.9 million victims, human trafficking impacts children and adults alike in cities, countries, and continents all around the world.

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300x394.jpg

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300×394.jpg

The severity and continued growth of the human trafficking industry caught the attention of Congress and in 2000 they passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which declared all types of human trafficking a federal crime.  The TVPA wasn’t enacted for only prosecutorial reasons, but is also aimed at prevention through public awareness programs.  In 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2011, increasing knowledge and awareness of the issue led to developments in the act and in 2013, President Obama signed the reauthorization of the TVPA, recognizing the magnitude of the international human trafficking problem and reestablishing the important role the TVPA plays in combating it.

While the U.S. government has taken a stance against the human trafficking problem through legislation, campaigns for public awareness and educating citizens on reporting tips can urge individuals to take a stance as well. One such initiative is underway in the city of Houston, one of the principal supply and transport sites for children and adult trafficking victims due to its proximity, demographics, substantial immigrant labor force, and easy access to I-10, the number one route for human trafficking in the United States.  During the month of September, Houston’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Mayor Annise Parker vows to provide the pubic with informative facts about the global dilemma as well as educate individuals about ways they can help combat the problem.  Houston’s public awareness campaign, “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking,” is aimed at educating the public on how to recognize signs of human trafficking and encouraging them to report suspicious situations to the appropriate authorities.  Other states, such as Ohio, have recently pledged resources and manpower to establish public awareness campaigns in order to educate the public on the problem of human trafficking.

Long-term education and awareness campaigns like “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking” can play a big role in combating modern day slavery.  With numerous businesses such as massage parlors, escort services, salons, and modeling agencies acting as fronts for the human trafficking industry, increased awareness of the warning signs and recognition of the types of establishments that have been known to be involved in the industry can help authorities put an end to this epidemic.  Often hidden in plain sight, law enforcement agencies often rely on the public for tips to locate, dismantle, and prosecute individuals involved in these organizations.

Modern human trafficking presents the most widespread global slave trade known to mankind, with more people enslaved today than at any other time in human history. A violation of one of the most basic human rights, efforts to combat this epidemic should be tailored towards the restoration of that fundamental human right—freedom.  It is a common misconception that human trafficking presents only a vast international problem; the U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are purchased and sold across international lines and borders every year, the United States included.  Making people more aware of this fact alone can help combat the human trafficking dilemma.  Awareness campaigns are invented to provide the tools needed to help bring the victims to safety and individuals involved in the human trafficking industry to justice.

For those who live in Houston and would like to take part in “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking,” the campaign will kick off at City Hall on September 24 at 6:30 p.m.

Thursday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

India, Dead Children, and the Lessons of a Dangerous Pesticide, wired.com

Last week, 23 children – some as young as five, none older than 12 – died after eating the free lunch provided at their school in a village in the state of Bihar in northern India.  Another two dozen remain hospitalized. They’d reportedly complained about the oddly blackened look of the meal, the bitter taste. But their principal insisted that they finish their food – a dish of beans, potatoes and vegetables – as good children should.

The principal, who had fled, was arrested yesterday.  There’s no word yet on her husband who also vanished – a grocer who supplied the school kitchen with what now appears to be cooking oil stored in pesticide containers. The obvious skimming of government money provided for school lunches, the charges of engrained corruption and slippery politics, and the absolutely needless deaths of young (and trusting) children has set off a round of accusations and recriminations in India. And also some more deliberate copy-cat poisonings, such as an incident yesterday near the city of Bhopal in which a man dropped rat poison into food being prepared for 50 students at a hostel (who, thankfully, refused to eat it due to the smell).

Lethal pesticides and other poisons are  less tightly regulated in India – and many countries in Southeast Asia – than they are here in the United States. The resulting easy access, the easy familiarity, are among the reasons that  mass poisonings remain more common there than in our corner. Let’s not forget that also, last week, 22 people died after eating a poisoned dinner in Pakistan. The murders were related to a feud between two brothers.  Those circumstances also play into small scale poisonings that often receive little attention, such as this barely noticed story from June in which a mother killed herself and her three children with poison, or this April incident, meriting a bare three newspaper paragraphs, in which the owner of a private school in Binkaner, India raped two young girls in his care and poisoned them when they threatened to tell.

You may not have heard of monocrotophos; it’s been banned in the United States for years. (It’s also banned in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, the Dominican Republic, the European Union, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Syria, Thailand, Vietnam and Yemen.) The Pesticide Action Network reports that it was also banned for use on vegetables in India in 2006 due to high residue levels but is “easily available and widely used on them.”

According to the WHO, India has found it difficult to enforce the 2006 monocrotophos ban for vegetables because it is used on so many crops, especially cotton. The country considered a universal ban  but was apparently persuaded otherwise by a discussions (read, suspected bribes) involving pesticide industry representatives. Would such a ban have saved those poor children in Bihar last week? Of course, not. There are countless other poisons to use either mistakenly or deliberately in any country, especially one that keeps the bar low on consumer education and protection.

But the fact that the killing agent was this one,  this macabre pesticide outlawed by countries including India’s neighbors, speaks to the curious comfort with lethal compounds the country so far maintains. It speaks to an indifference to those without money and power – poor farmers, poor children, birds and animals trapped in the cast of a toxic net. It undoubtedly speaks as well to the charges of corruption and politics that followed the mounting toll of dead children. Because the truth about public education and solidly enforced regulation is that these are tools of equality. They respect the least powerful as well as the most.

Feds Charge Florida Over Mishandling of Disabled Children, abc. com

The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the state of Florida, alleging disabled children there have been systemically segregated and isolated in nursing homes when they should have been eligible for home health care.

The suit alleges Florida violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates that the state provide “reasonable accommodations” for parents of children with disabilities.

Federal investigators also noticed that disabled children in nursing homes seemed banished to the second floor in one facility and blocked from the outdoors by a smoking section for the elderly in another.

According to the complaint, Florida reduced funding for and access to home medical care for disabled children, failed to prevent them from inappropriately being placed in nursing homes and failed to offer them an opportunity to return to the community.

“Today’s Obama administration action shows that Washington is not interested in helping families improve but instead is determined to file disruptive lawsuits with the goal of taking over control and operation of Florida’s Medicaid and disability programs,” said the state agency’s secretary Elizabeth Dudek.