Raise the Age
Kalief Browder spent three years in jail on Rikers Island in New York City for allegedly stealing a backpack at the age of 16. While at Rikers, Browder faced constant physical abuse from prison guards and fellow inmates and spent most of his time in solitary confinement. He was never tried. After his release, he spoke openly about the trauma he experienced, saying, “I’m mentally scarred right now…. Because there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back.” On June 6, Browder committed suicide.
Mr. Browder was one of many teenagers prosecuted as adults in New York; North Carolina is the only other U.S. state that prosecutes people as young as 16 in this manner. Now, in a new effort called Raise the Age New York, a group of activists that includes formerly incarcerated persons, faith leaders and members of law enforcement, is demanding that New York State raise the age of criminal responsibility for children. Advocates argue that because adolescent brains are not yet fully developed, the emphasis in dealing with juvenile offenders should be on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City has introduced a plan that would gradually reduce the population at Rikers. Along with other New York City officials, he has also approved a plan that prohibits solitary confinement for inmates 21 and younger.
Four days after Kalief Browder’s death, another Rikers inmate, 18-year-old Kenan Davis, hanged himself in his cell. While Mayor de Blasio’s reform proposals would help, the age for prosecuting young offenders as adults should also be changed. The prison system should not contribute to one more teenage death.
A Senate Vote Against Torture
In a rare display of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate approved on June 16 an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit the use of torture by every federal agency. The measure comes six months after a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee revealed the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on detainees held by the Central Intelligence Agency were more brutal and less effective than Congressional overseers and the public had been led to believe.
The amendment, co-sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, restricts the U.S. government to interrogation and detention techniques included in the Army Field Manual, mandates that the manual be updated every three years to ensure compliance with U.S. law and best practices, and requires the International Committee of the Red Cross to be given access to all detainees.
Unlike the torture ban introduced by President Obama early in 2009, which could be reversed by his successor, the McCain-Feinstein amendment, should it become law, would bind future administrations. That is significant. While the amendment passed by a wide margin (78 to 21), three members of the Republican leadership voted against it, as did the presidential hopeful Senator Lindsey Graham. Another 2016 contender, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, missed the vote but told The Guardian he “would have voted no” because he did not support “denying future commanders in chief and intelligence officials important tools for protecting the American people and the U.S. homeland.” We now know definitively that torture did not make us safer. Whoever takes up residence in the White House in 2017 must not be given a chance to revive that myth.
Eugene Kennedy’s Gift
Eugene Kennedy, who died on June 3 at the age of 86, happily navigated several worlds. He was a Maryknoll priest (1955–77); a professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago (1969–95); and an activist intellectual former priest, writing books on psychology (On Becoming a Counselor, 1977), contributing to The National Catholic Reporter and speaking at Voice of the Faithful meetings (1977–2015). He was also the man at the center of a network of friendships that included Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, Mayor Richard J. Daley, Jacqueline Kennedy and Norman Mailer, whose biography he reviewed for America.
Perhaps his greatest legacy was the study he wrote with Victor J. Heckler, The Catholic Priest in the United States: Psychological Investigations, published in 1972. It concluded that of the 271 priests in the study, two-thirds were emotionally underdeveloped and incapable of forming healthy, trusting, nonsexual relationships. Seen in that context, it foreshadowed the sexual abuse scandals of the coming years.
Years before this he had proposed that seminaries become coeducational to break the isolation of young men shut off from the world they were supposedly being trained to love and serve. He also anticipated Pope Francis’ powerful critique of clericalism. In 2002 he wrote in the N.C.R., “The priesthood is not dying, but the clerical state is dead.” Meanwhile he defended the choice, not the rule, of celibacy, which he called a “vision of the Christian meaning of love.”