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By Miriam Raftery

January 27, 2016 (Washington D.C.) – Juveniles in federal prisons can no longer be sentenced to solitary confinement under an executive order issued by President Barack Obama that also reforms solitary confinement rules for adults. Also this week, the Supreme Court ruled that an earlier decision banning mandatory life sentences for juveniles applies retroactively—meaning prisoners who committed serious crimes before age 18 must have parole hearings or an opportunity for resentencing.

Restricting solitary confinement

An estimated 100,000 prisoners nationwide are in solitary confinement, including 10,000 in federal prisons, though only a small fraction of those are juveniles. Among other reforms, the new rules also reduce the time any prisoner can be put in solitary for a first offense from 365 days to 60 days.

“How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” Obama wrote, adding that such action can have “heartbreaking results.” He cited the case of Kalief Browder, who spent nearly two years in solitary confinement while awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack at age 16.  He was released without ever being tried or convicted, then committed suicide at age 22.

The rules apply only to federal prisons, though the President has said he hopes to see states use the guidelines as models for their own reforms.  Several states have already implemented reforms, including California following a lawsuit filed after revelations that nearly 3,000 inmates in state prisons are kept alone in solitary confinement cells 22 hours a day or more, the Washington Post reports. 

A chance at freedom for juvenile offenders

The U.S. Supreme Court , by a 6-3 vote, has ruled that its earlier decision in a 2012 case, Miller v. Alabama, that banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles must be applied retroactively—meaning even elderly prisoners who committed crimes as youths will now have an opportunity for freedom, though not a guarantee that freedom will be granted.

The U.S. is the only nation in the world that allows juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, the Juvenile Justice Forum reports.

Justice Antonin Kennedy, writing for the majority, wrote, “Life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity.”

But  Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissent also signed by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas,called the majority’s ruling “astonishing” and the requirements to consider even juvenile killers for parole “impossible nonsense.”

A brief submitted by states opposed to releasing juvenile offenders argued that doing so would “undermine the community’s safety and would offend principles of finality.”

But Katherine Mattes, director of the Tulane Law School Criminal Litigation Clinic, says some young offenders have matured while behind bars, adding, “some have mentored younger prisoners, some have earned an education and learned a trade,” McClatchy News Service reports.

However the ruling does not grant freedom--only the right to a parole hearing. While parole boards will now have to review sentences, they won't have to give parole,  according to retired law professor Victor Streib, an internationally renowned expert on the juvenile death penalty and juvenile justice. "And it would be very typical for them not to,” Streib states, Juvenile Justice Forum reports.

Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center of Juvenile And Criminal Justice hailed the decision as humane.  “It’s the right thing to do," he concludes. "The rest of the world has recognized the idea that it’s not a good idea to sentence children to die in prison without any hope of release."

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