Juvenile Justice

End Juvenile Solitary Confinement

By Carlos Jennings

The solitary confinement of young people in juvenile correctional facilities and prisons has come under increasing scrutiny as of late. Last May, as part of a class action lawsuit settlement, Contra Costa County in California agreed to stop holding underage youth in solitary confinement as a form of punishment, except when they are an immediate danger to themselves or others and then for no more than 4 hours at a time. The case was filed by Disability Rights Advocates of Berkeley and Public Counsel of Los Angeles, two nonprofit legal organizations. The suit alleged that minors, including those with developmental and psychiatric disabilities, were routinely held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, sometimes for months at a time.

black boy in solitary
                            A youth in solitary/jjie.org

While in solitary they were denied education, counseling, and other federally mandated rehabilitative services. Although they have agreed to the terms of the settlement, county officials have been defiant saying that the county did not use solitary confinement or cause harm to youth and that the lawsuit was a waste of taxpayer money. But Laura Faer, co-counsel and education rights director with Public Counsel, said youth were “placed in small cells with a window the size of your arm, with a slab of concrete and a mattress, and they are kept in those cells without education. “ Such was the case with one of the plaintiffs, W.B., who suffered a psychotic break and was found smearing feces on his cell wall after being held in solitary confinement for more than 100 days.

Judicial reform activists hoped the Contra Costa victory would pave the way for statewide reform. Subsequently, State Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights co-sponsored Senate Bill 124 which would end the use of solitary confinement in juvenile correctional facilities on a statewide basis. The provisions of the bill were similar to those in the Contra Costa lawsuit and would allow solitary confinement only when an individual poses an immediate and substantial risk to the facility or to him- or herself, and not for more than 4 hours. It also bans the practice for individuals with physical or mental disorders, and it would require statewide reporting of all instances of solitary confinement. The bill was passed by the senate this June and was then sent to the state assembly for a vote.

juvenile eyes prison
                   Juvenile In Justice/Richard Ross

Debate on this issue is also taking place in other states and in Canada. In 2014, New York City banned solitary confinement for inmates under 21, and the Ohio Department of Youth Services agreed to eventually eliminate the practice and to improve mental health services as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Children’s Law Center.  In November 2015, a $125 million class-action lawsuit was filed with the Ontario Superior Court over the alleged mistreatment of minors in youth justice facilities. Newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called for reform after Ashley Smith, 19, committed suicide after spending over 1,000 days in solitary confinement in youth and federal prison.

These recent lawsuits and legislative reform efforts come at a time when criminal justice reform advocates cite mounting evidence that solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment, especially for teens that are still developing and may have already experienced various forms of trauma in their lives. A 2009 national survey has linked solitary confinement to an increase in suicide rates. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 60% of young people who committed suicide had a history of solitary confinement, and 50% of suicides in juvenile facilities occurred while youth were isolated in their rooms. Tragically, this happened to Rosemary Summers, 16, of San Diego, who hanged herself after six weeks in solitary confinement in 2013.

On November 15, 2015, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the House version of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), bringing the criminal justice reform bill one step closer to becoming law. While the bill is mainly focused on sentencing reforms for adults in federal prisons, part of the bill focuses on the federal juvenile justice system and would– for the first time — ban the solitary confinement of youth in federal facilities. Criminal justice advocates say that while this is a step in the right direction, it would have no effect on state-level policies. A complete ban would require each state to enact similar legislation. Ten states currently have no time limits on detaining juveniles in solitary confinement.

solitary cell
           A solitary cell in Texas/rightoncrime.com

Unfortunately, the California Assembly rejected S.B. 124 due to the perceived costs of implementation. Proponents of the bill will try again during the next legislative session in 2016. This comes on the heels of Ashker v. Governor of California where the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed to greatly reduce solitary confinement for adult inmates. Plaintiffs said that some inmates were held in solitary for a decade or more at Pelican Bay State Prison and that the state did not provide due process and violated the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. The solitary confinement of juveniles must also end. The U.S. Department of Education, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organization, and the U.N. have all condemned the practice. Research on the impact of isolation has shown that it can lead to panic attacks, depression, obsessive thoughts, impulsive behavior, psychosis, and other harmful effects. It can hinder young people from becoming healthy, productive adults and can cause psychological, physical, and developmental harm, especially for those with disabilities or with previous experiences of abuse and trauma.

Additional Sources:

This Is What Happens When We Lock Children in Solitary Confinement – Mother Jones

Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States  – ACLU

End Solitary Confinement: The practice is inhumane and unconstitutional – The Harvard Crimson

air pollution, climate change, environmental justice, EPA

EPA faces latest court challenge

By Carlos Jennings

WASHINGTON D.C. – On March 25th the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the government’s ability to regulate toxic air pollution from coal- and oil-burning power plants. This is the latest in a series of challenges from the energy sector against the Environmental Protection Agency. At stake is the agency’s ability to enforce new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) that set first-time limits on the amount of mercury, hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids and other toxic pollutants including arsenic, chromium and nickel emitted from new and existing power plants. Electricity-generating power plants are the largest source of mercury contamination in the U.S.

Major sources of hazardous air pollution. (EPA)
Major sources of hazardous air pollution. (EPA)

The new standards have met with strong opposition from the power industry, including the two largest U.S. coal companies, 22 states, and allies in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He has denounced the EPA and the Obama administration for waging a “war on coal” and has taken the unprecedented action of urging states to “just say no” to the new standards. EPA estimates between $37 billion and $90 billion in annual public health benefits from the new standards. But energy groups say the estimate is $4 to $6 million annually because they will only consider the benefit from reduced mercury levels in freshwater fish that are caught and eaten. This is a very narrow definition, and there are other outcomes which the EPA can quantify and include in its analysis. A reduction of fine and ultrafine particles, for example, would lead to fewer sick days and emergency room visits. It would reduce cases of respiratory disease, heart disease, and cancer, and save up to 11,000 lives every year. The annual costs to industry would total $9.6 billion. Energy producers say the price of compliance is too high and will lead to increased energy bills.

Estimated health effects of coal-fired power plants. (Rocky Mountain Institute)
Estimated health effects of coal-fired power plants. (Rocky Mountain Institute)

The court will not rule on the monetary value of the benefits, however, but on whether the EPA was required to make cost calculations before placing power plants under a new regulatory regime. 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act gave the EPA authority to regulate power plants if “appropriate and necessary”. EPA argues that they are not obligated to consider costs when deciding to list or de-list a pollutant or specific sources of pollution for regulation. Their mission is to protect human health and the environment, not to protect polluters. Nearly 60 percent of electricity-generating power plants in the U.S. are over forty years old. Some energy companies have already adopted pollution-control technologies and are in compliance. They side with EPA and charge their competitors of reaping an unfair economic advantage by not upgrading their facilities. The case also has environmental justice implications. Jacqui Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, said this is not just an environmental issue. “For us, it’s very much a civil rights issue if certain communities are being disproportionately impacted by the pollutants that come from these coal plants.” Studies have shown that low-income communities and communities of color are exposed to higher rates of air pollution. 68 percent of African-Americans in the U.S. live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.

A coal-fired power plant in Fort Gibson, Okla. (NY Times/Nick Oxford)
A coal-fired power plant in Fort Gibson, Okla. (NY Times/Nick Oxford)

The EPA prevailed in two cases in 2014 on regulating air pollution across state lines, and on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. A decision against the EPA would have negative consequences for the future of government regulation by reversing the so-called “Chevron Deference,” a precedent that allows agencies to interpret ambiguous language in directives from Congress. It would force the EPA to consider costs to industry over health and the environment. The combined cases in the oral arguments are Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency, and National Mining Association v. Environmental Protection Agency. A decision is expected sometime this summer.


June 29, 2015 –  The Supreme Court ruled against the EPA in a 5-4 decision. In the majority opinion Justice Scalia wrote that the EPA must consider costs to industry before ordering coal-, and oil-burning power plants to comply with Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). The decision is being touted by the coal industry and conservative politicians as a major victory against EPA overreach, but the mercury standards will remain in effect while the case is remanded to the D.C. Circuit Court where it will decide how to enforce the Supreme Court’s mandate. The lower court will either vacate the rule or leave it in place for the EPA to revise. Mercury emission standards for power plants were issued in 2012 and the initial compliance date was this past April. Consequently, the EPA and environmentalists say the decision is not significant because the majority of power plants are already in compliance with mercury standards. EPA’s chief administrator, Gina McCarthy, said she is confident that the rule will stand and that the decision will not affect EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions due later this summer. The decision could have consequences for future environmental regulation cases, however.

climate change, El Niño, environment

El Niño finally arrives, but little relief for California

By Carlos Jennings

The El Niño that was predicted in early 2014 has finally arrived but its late development offers little short-term relief for parched California. Climatologists had hoped that even a weak El Niño would bring much-needed winter rains, but its development has been slow with little impact on climate.

Ten-day average of sea surface height from NOAA's Jason-2 satellite, mid-March, 2015. Shades of red indicate where the ocean stands above normal sea level—warmer water expands to fill more volume because of thermal expansion. Shades of blue show where sea level and temperatures are lower than average (thermal contraction). Normal sea-level conditions appear in white. (NOAA/Joshua Stevens)
Ten-day average of sea surface height from NOAA’s Jason-2 satellite, mid-March, 2015. Shades of red indicate where the ocean stands above normal sea level—warmer water expands to fill more volume because of thermal expansion. Shades of blue show where sea level and temperatures are lower than average (thermal contraction). Normal sea-level conditions appear in white. (NOAA/Joshua Stevens)

El Niño is the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation or ENSO, a disruption of the typical ocean-atmosphere system with sustained above average sea surface temperatures in sections of the equatorial Pacific.

El Niño historically peaks around December and is why Peruvian fisherman named the phenomenon after the Christ child. NOAA’s Oceanic Niño Index, or ONI, is used to identify El Niño and La Niña conditions. In an El Niño event sea surface temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific are at least 0.5°C above normal for five consecutive overlapping three-month periods. La Niña is when sea surface temperatures are at least 0.5°C below normal for the same duration. They can be further classified as weak, moderate, or strong events.

NASA climatologist Bill Patzert said the current El Niño was more like “El Wimpo”, but this could change. In March NOAA announced that El Niño conditions have increased with a 70 percent chance of continuing over the summer and possibly into fall and winter.

Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) -1850-2015. (NOAA)
Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) -1850-2015. (NOAA)

Another indicator that could signal a change in weather patterns is the flip of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO, from a cold to a warm phase. It is similar to ENSO but on a time scale of 20 to 30 years compared with 9 or 10 months for ENSO events.   Scientists do not fully understand what drives these climatic cycles, but a strong El Niño is more likely during a warm phase of PDO.

Normally, trade winds and strong equatorial currents flow from east to west. Low pressure, rising air, and heavy rainfall develop over the western Pacific, with high pressure, sinking air, and dry conditions in the east. This is called the Walker Circulation. The western tropical Pacific is part of the vast Indo-Pacific Warm Pool, containing the warmest seawater in the world. In the eastern Pacific basin, upwelling and cold currents lead to cooler sea surface temperatures.

A comparison of normal and El Niño atmosphere-ocean patterns. (NOAA)
A comparison of normal and El Niño atmosphere-ocean patterns. (NOAA)

During an El Niño event these patterns are reversed. The easterly trade winds slacken or can even change direction. The warm pool of water and low pressure also begins to shift toward the east. This leads to an increase in rain and floods in parts of North and South America, and less rain and drought in Southeast Asia and Australia. El Niño may also be linked to disruptions in the Indian Monsoon. While there is still a chance that the current El Niño could strengthen and produce noticeable climatic effects later this year, including rain in drought-stricken areas, wishing for an El Niño is not a good strategy for dealing with a limited water supply, growing demand, and a changing climate.

70% chance that El Niño will continue through Northern Hemisphere summer
NOAA’s El Niño Portal
Reverberations of the Pacific Warm Pool

climate change, environment, record snowfall, weather extremes

Record snowfall in the Northeast may be linked to climate change

By Carlos Jennings

BOSTON – The northeastern United States and Canada have endured bitterly cold temperatures and heavy snowfall this winter. Over 9 feet of snow has fallen in Boston, an all-time record. Snow still blanketed the region as late as the first week of April. The heavy snowfall and below normal temperatures have been cited by skeptics to deny the existence of human-induced climate change. In February U.S. Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., brought a snowball into the senate chamber and mocked climate change as a “hoax”.

Snow blankets the northeast in this MODIS image taken April 01, 2015. (NOAA)
Snow blankets the northeast in this MODIS image – April 01, 2015. (NOAA)

The snowball was presented as proof that the planet is not warming: It’s cold and snowing during winter in Washington D.C., so climate change is nothing to worry about. Senator Inhofe refers to climate change scientists as “alarmists” in  his book, “The Greatest Hoax”. He writes,”The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

Arguments like this blur the distinction between long-term climate conditions and daily and seasonal variations in weather. Weather is the short-term condition of the atmosphere, and climate refers to the consistent, long-term behavior of weather over time. Average annual global temperatures have been increasing steadily since 1980.

Mean global temperatures and CO2 levels. 1880-2009 (NOAA)
Mean global temperatures and CO2 levels. 1880-2009 (NOAA)

The rise in average global temperatures also coincides with a marked increase in CO2 levels. NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center reports that 2014 was the warmest year since record keeping began in 1880. Some of the consequences of a warming planet are extremes in temperatures and precipitation, including snow.

Land and ocean temperature anomalies, February 2015. (NOAA)
Land and ocean temperature anomalies, February 2015. (NOAA)

Mr. Inhofe is correct in that it has been cold in the Northeast, bitterly cold, in fact. However, most of the planet recorded above average temperatures this winter, as indicated on the map of February 2015 temperature anomalies. It was the second warmest February on record.

It’s likely that the record snowfall in the Northeast and the drought in the West are not separate phenomena, but could be caused by warming temperatures in the Arctic and a weakening jet stream. Jet streams are fast-moving rivers of air located in the upper atmosphere between air masses with different temperatures. “Anything that affects that temperature difference will affect the jet stream” says climate scientist Jennifer Francis. The Arctic has been warming faster than lower latitudes because the atmosphere is shallower at the poles, and melting sea ice is exposing darker ocean surfaces that absorb more heat, creating a positive feedback loop. Warmer temperatures in the arctic could cause the jet stream to meander north and south. Since December 2013, the jet stream has been bulging northward over western North America and dipping far to the south over the East. This has kept the high-pressure ridge over the eastern Pacific – dubbed the ridiculously resilient ridge, and its counterpart – the terribly tenacious trough, stubbornly in place during the last two winters, causing extremes on either side.

250 mb winds, February 16, 2015. (NCEP)
250 mb wind speeds show a widely meandering jet stream. February 15, 2015. (NCEP)
A couple walks through the snow in Boston, February 15 2015. (Brian Snyder - Reuters)
A couple walks through the snow in Boston, February 15 2015. (Brian Snyder – Reuters)

Jim Inhofe’s snowball has disproven climate change once and for all
Global Climate Change Indicators – National Climatic Data Center
Global Warming Linked To More Extreme Weather And Weaker Jet Stream

California drought, climate change, water conservation

Governor Brown announces California water restrictions

By Carlos Jennings

EL DORADO COUNTY, Calif. – On April 01, 2015, Governor Brown announced mandatory water restrictions after more than three years of severe drought. There was no snow on the ground at the state’s annual survey near Echo Summit, where the governor announced the new restrictions. The Sierra Nevada snowpack was estimated to be only 5 percent of average. “We’re standing on dry grass, and we should be standing in five feet of snow. We’re in an historic drought, and that demands unprecedented action,” said Brown.

Satellite images taken January 31, 2014 (left) and 2015 reveal a greener landscape due to early winter rains, but also a dwindling snowpack. (NOAA)
Satellite images taken January 31, 2014 (left) and 2015 reveal a greener landscape due to early winter rains, but also a dwindling snowpack. (NOAA)

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly the entire state continues to experience extreme to exceptional drought conditions after the third consecutive year of low rainfall and above average temperatures. A persistent high-pressure ridge off the West Coast has diverted the storm track well to the north during the last three winters. NOAA states the current drought is not a symptom of long-term climate change but can be attributed to natural internal ocean-atmosphere variability. Similarly, Governor Brown did not directly link the current drought to climate change but said it is indicative of the type of event that is “absolutely inevitable in the coming years and decades.”

Governor Brown’s executive order marks the first statewide mandatory water restrictions in California’s history. The state has thousands of water agencies and districts, and 430 of them serve 90 percent of California residents.

Houseboats on Lake Oroville.  Reservoir levels are at record lows.  (Rich Pedroncelli - Associated Press)
Houseboats on Lake Oroville. Reservoir levels are at record lows. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

This can make cooperation and wise management of resources more difficult. The governor has ordered the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to impose a 25 percent reduction of water usage on the state’s water agencies over the coming year, compared with 2013 levels. Individual water agencies will be responsible for designing and implementing their own plans to comply with the new restrictions. Those agencies that do not meet reduction targets will likely face punitive measures, such as fines. Some agencies have already significantly reduced their water usage from voluntary conservation measures enacted over the previous two years. “People should realize we’re in a new era,” Brown said.

Provisions of the governor’s order include:

– Replacing 50 million square feet of residential lawns with drought-tolerant plants.

– A statewide consumer rebate program to subsidize new water-efficient appliances, like washing machines and toilets.

– A ban on watering ornamental lawns on public street medians.

– A ban on irrigating yards in new housing developments unless recycling or drip irrigation is used.

– The implementation of new rate structures, fees, and penalties to encourage residents to use less water.

– Financial assistance for families forced to move if they run out of potable water.

Brown’s plan, however, has been criticized for going easy on farmers and for not regulating groundwater use. Agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s water supply, and there are currently no limits or oversight on groundwater use. Subsidence is a growing concern in parts of the Central Valley where groundwater is being depleted the fastest. Defenders of the governor’s plan point out that many farmers have already had their water allotments greatly reduced. The federal Central Valley Project will not deliver any water to farmers this year, and the State Water Project plans to deliver only 20 percent of contract amounts for those without senior water rights. The order also does not require oil producers to cut their usage, including hydraulic fracturing. The new water-saving measures are estimated to save about 1.5 million acre-feet of water for the remainder of 2015. One acre-foot equals approximately 326,000 gallons. If the drought continues, however, California’s complex water laws may need more sweeping reform.

Brown defends not requiring water cuts for California farmers
The California Drought – USGS
Overpumping of Central Valley groundwater creating a crisis, experts say

Most of California is experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions.  (U.S. Drought Monitor)
Most of California is experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions. (U.S. Drought Monitor)