Opinions | California’s chance to forge a new path on juvenile justice

Kalief Browder was 16 years old in 2010 when he was charged with robbery and incarcerated on Rikers Island, a prison in New York. For three years, he was held without being convicted of a crime, and endured about two years in confinement. Kalief spent more than 1,000 days on Rikers waiting for a trial, which never took place. Kalief constantly feared and experienced violence in the prison at the hands of guards and other inmates.

Kalief Browder’s experience drove him to multiple suicide attempts, and after his release in June 2013, when the district attorney dropped all charges, the psychological effects of incarceration and solitary confinement continued to affect him. He made another suicide attempt, and continued to struggle severely with his mental health. On June 16, 2015, he ripped his own bed sheets into long strips, twisted them into a cord, wrapped the cord around his neck, and jumped out of his family’s apartment window, ending his life.

Kalief Browder’s story, though devastating, remains all too common. Due to widespread abuse, and the severe pain and suffering it causes, the United Nations designates room confinement a form of torture, of cruel and inhumane punishment.

California holds almost 130,000 people in its correctional system and ranks 20th in the nation in incarceration rates. Almost 1,772 people in California are in isolation at any given time. The numbers for California’s incarcerated youth are less clear, though 2011 court documents reported 249 incidents of confinement during a 14-week period at five juvenile facilities. As the law currently stands, there are no statewide time restrictions on how long a facility can keep a child confined.

We have a chance to help lead the way this fall with state legislation that will place severe limits on the use of isolation for youth across California. At this point, individual counties and jurisdictions in California have placed varying levels of limits on room confinement, yet year after year the California legislature fails to pass statewide legislation.

For the first time ever, due in part to the co-sponsorship of Chief Probation Officers of California, the bill has already passed both the state Senate and Assembly with bipartisan support. The only other state taking legislative action on the state scale is Colorado.

California has the chance to lead by example on criminal and juvenile justice reform by limiting isolation to four hours at a time, and providing significant regulation on the damaging practice. This promising and practical step forward could prevent thousands of vulnerable youth from experiencing unnecessary trauma, moving away from punitive measures, and toward rehabilitative services that allow incarcerated children to safely and productively return to our communities.

We come at this work as Jewish activists. Jewish tradition teaches that isolation goes against divine intention. The second chapter of the Torah says, “It is not good for humans to be alone.” Connection with others is recognized as a need, one that should not be contravened. The Talmud offers the words “companionship or death” cementing the heavy significance of human interaction. Not only do these teachings frame any instance of human isolation as harmful, they also suggest that building relationships is a holy act.

Values like these pulled from our Jewish tradition ground us in the work we do with Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice. Each of us got involved with Bend the Arc through the Jeremiah Fellowship, a young adult leadership development program. Through that, we joined the Criminal Justice Reform campaign team because the criminal justice system is so directly tied in with systemic racism, an oppression that both of us have dedicated to fight against.

We invite you to join us in improving youth outcomes by voicing your support of SB1143, a historic initiative that sets nationwide precedent in policy and collaboration. Remind Gov. Jerry Brown that California has always been a visionary state that can bring together disparate voices for the advancement of justice. You can tell Brown you support SB1143 and so should he by signing our online petition. Let the governor know that he must sign this bill into law in the name of community and dignity for our children.

Marissa Robbins is a member of Bend the Arc’s local criminal justice reform team. She grew up in Marin County. Jacob Klein is the office administrator and program associate at Keshet Bay Area.