Washington, D.C. – Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening remarks, as prepared, during a Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security hearing on “Juvenile Justice Pipeline and the Road Back to Integration:”
“Thank you, Chairwoman Jackson Lee, for holding this important hearing on juvenile justice, particularly in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Jones v. Mississippi. That decision, which makes it easier for courts to sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole, marks a significant break from the Court’s prior precedent.
“Previously, the Court had issued a string of decisions restricting the imposition of these harsh sentences, based in large part on the significant and growing scientific consensus regarding the differences between children and adults, and the recognition that we should view, treat, and rehabilitate children in our justice system accordingly.
“Prior to the Progressive Era—a period of widespread activism and social reform spanning from the 1890s to the 1920s—child offenders over the age of seven were punished and confined with adults in harsh and overcrowded penal institutions. But early reformers and psychologists opposed incarcerating youth with adults and urged the creation of new institutions for youth that focused on rehabilitation.
“This work led to the creation of the New York House of Refuge in 1824, the first juvenile reformatory in the United States and a pioneer in the treatment of children. By 1899, other states had followed suit and had recognized that children who commit crimes are different from adults. By the 1920s, our juvenile justice system had emerged.
“But over time, a system originally focused on rehabilitation and the differences between children and adults shifted to one fueled by ‘tough on crime’ laws in response to an exaggerated rise of juvenile crime and delinquency.
“These laws resulted in disparate sentences—especially for African American children—deplorable conditions of confinement for sentenced youth, and the deprivation of constitutional rights.
“According to the Death Penalty Information Center and Equal Justice Initiative, at least 366 people had been executed for juvenile offenses by 2005. Thousands more, including children as young as 13, were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“The Supreme Court slowly recognized that children are different. In 2005, it held in Roper v. Simmons ‘that the death penalty cannot be imposed upon juvenile offenders.’ In doing so, the Court acknowledged ‘the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime.’
“In 2010, the Court held in Graham v. Florida that the Eighth Amendment forbids life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. In 2012, it held in Miller v. Alabama—a case argued by Bryan Stevenson, one of our witnesses—that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment.
“The Court’s 2016 decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana applied Miller retroactively, finding that ‘children are constitutionally different from adults in their culpability,’ and that the severest punishments should be reserved for the ‘rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.’
“The recent Jones decision, however, guts this precedent. And, it sadly reaffirms our standing as the only country in the world that sentences children to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for offenses committed before they turned 18.
“As we examine the impact of this decision and possible solutions, it is important that we also explore the full range of issues affecting justice-involved youth. This includes early intervention strategies for at-risk youth—particularly those who have experienced childhood trauma—developing appropriate confinement settings, and rehabilitation programs that will ease reentry when sentences are over.
“Some states have led the way on juvenile justice reform. I hope those reform efforts will mitigate some of the harm caused by the Jones decision—retroactively and prospectively. But our treatment of justice-involved youth should not be based on geography.
“Congress must be an equal partner in these reform efforts, which includes examining the way our federal laws treat youth in our justice system. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses as we continue to explore these important issues.
“Thank you, and I yield back the balance of my time.”
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