Human Rights, Solitary Confinement, and Youth Justice in the United States
Human Rights and Legal Judgments: The American Story, Austin Sarat, ed.; ISBN-13: 978-1107198302
50 Pages Posted: 9 Nov 2017
Date Written: June 3, 2017
Over the last 15 years, US activists working on a range of domestic issues – from police violence and mass criminalization to reproductive rights to access to water – have incorporated human rights claims into their work. But even as it becomes more commonplace to hear activists make human rights claims, the question remains, what impact do the claims have? When are they successful in contributing to changes in attitudes, laws, and policies?
For the most part, the United States’ human rights obligations cannot be directly enforced in US courts. The lack of a legally enforceable human rights charter or text leaves both the substantive rights and the forums and spaces to implement them up for grabs. Indeed, while Americans have a commitment to human rights, we often lack a common understanding of what is encompassed by the term. But the fluidity of the term also creates opportunities for social justice activists. US activists often seek to expand the public’s understanding of what can be claimed as a right beyond the confines of rights formally recognized under US law.
In the United States (as in other countries), successful human rights claims can be leveraged in debates to change public attitudes on issues as long as they are accepted by American audiences as human rights. These claims may ultimately result in changes in laws, standards, and policies irrespective of whether they create legally binding obligations under international or domestic law. These claims are strengthened and legitimized when the international human rights community recognizes and prioritizes the claims as important human rights issues, but ultimately their success relies upon whether they resonate with Americans as human rights issues and inspire activism for change.
Two areas where there has been increased human rights advocacy in the United States are in challenges to the use of solitary confinement and to the practice of trying and incarcerating youth (individuals under age 18 years) in the adult criminal justice system. In New York and in many other states, work around the second issue is known as “raise the age.” This chapter examines advocacy efforts around these two issues, with a particular focus on reform efforts in New York City and New York State, and considers the ways in which human rights activism and popular understandings of rights influence law and policy making.
Keywords: solitary confinement, youth justice, raise the age, human rights
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