Solitary Reform Shows Power of Brain Science to Change Policy

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susan-dreyfus-225Citing research and data on the negative impacts of solitary confinement on the human mind and spirit, President Obama has banned the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons for juveniles. The hope is that for now, this policy will serve as a model for state correctional systems to adopt as well.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, is also working to prohibit widespread juvenile solitary confinement. Booker teamed with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, to introduce the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act of 2015 to the U.S. Senate. This legislation raises the age of criminal responsibility and restricts the use of juvenile solitary confinement.

Both of these examples and others across the country tell us that the compelling brain science is finally starting to make its way into the formation of policies — and we need to keep it going.

Studies have documented that the effects of solitary confinement on young people are damaging and lasting. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, United Nations and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have suggested or supported prohibition of the practice.

It’s very promising to see counties, states, the federal government and our president use science and data to begin to reform the criminal justice system in our country — one that impacts the lives of more than 2 million individuals and close to 1 million children each year.

Using science to support certain types of policy is a very welcome advance, and one that the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities proposes will move the needle on a wide range of challenges we face. Indeed, there is more brain science available that has broad applicability beyond criminal justice that we believe can be successfully aligned to create better policies that ensure a safer and more positive future for our children, families and adults.

Today we know how both positive and negative experiences can alter brain architecture and change the way we interact and respond to our environments, including how we relate to each other. We also know how chronic, negative experiences at home and in the community in childhood can alter the brain, affecting everything from health and education to employability. There is great possibility for success in aligning our policies with how the brain is shaped and formed to build stronger people, and in turn more sustainable communities.

The Alliance’s Change in Mind Initiative is advancing the science. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Palix Foundation, 15 community-based organizations in the U.S. and Alberta, Canada, the initiative is now studying the integration of brain science research into the nonprofit sector. Each will demonstrate, through their leadership and advocacy power, the role of our sector as influencer to alter systems and change policies.

We believe, if done correctly, science-informed policy will not just help solve some of society’s most vexing challenges, but will over time lower the cost curves in areas such as health to allow us to make deeper investments in prevention, stronger families and better communities that are key to accelerating the economic health of our nation.

Susan Dreyfus is the president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, the nation’s largest network of human-serving organizations. She is the former secretary for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and Wisconsin’s first administrator of the Division of Children and Family Services. She is a member of Leadership 18, a coalition of CEOs from the largest and most respected nonprofit organizations in America, and was appointed to the 12-member National Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities in 2013.

  • Zoe Wyse

    I am so excited to see so many people thinking about constructive ways to work with youth. At its most basic level, this really isn’t that complicated. There is certainly room for a lot of creative, innovative thinking to design solutions that meet the huge variety of different needs of youth. I am so heartened that we as a country are so innovative, dynamic, and dedicated to growth. I am confident that we can more than take on these challenges.

    But at its most basic level, this is not complicated. We just need to ask ourselves, “If this were my child, or my neighbor’s child, or a child in whom I take a personal interest, is this how I would go about addressing his or her needs?” If the answer is no, then things need to change. These are children who are like our children. They are like our neighbors’ children. They are like the children that we take an interest in supporting, whether we support children as physicians, teachers, coaches, librarians, mentors or any other way. These children are not different than the children we know.

    Some may have an ethnicity that looks different than our children. Some of these children may have behaviors that seem different than what we are used to. Some may have different life experiences than what our children have experienced. But they are not different kinds of people. Most would like a good future. Most would like people to care about them. Most would like support. Most would like patience. Most would like positive role models.

    If we see the faces of these children and hear their stories, we will want to support them. We will want to give them the support, patience, hopeful attitude, sense of passionate protection of their safety, and relentlessly dedicated caring that we would give to our own children. At the most basic level, this is very simple.

    Once we have this understanding, we can find the right tools to meet the needs of each individual child. This is not a political issue. It is a human issue. It is a question of how we each choose to care about and relate to children.