Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Children and the Courts by Thomas Riggins

Well we can least congratulate the Supreme Court [SCOTUS] for its recent decision that sentencing children to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional, as is the use of mandatory one size fits all sentences. Justice Kagan was absolutely correct in stating, in her majority opinion, that the brains (and hence the minds) of children are undeveloped in those areas governing maturity, ethical and moral development, impulsiveness and judgment regarding the consequences of their actions. These areas of the brain are not fully functional until the mid 20s and children cannot be expected to behave as if they were already operational.

No matter what crimes children have committed it is neither just nor even sensible to lock them up for life and throw away the key. The adult personality of these children (with the possible exception of sociopaths or psychopaths) will be, with proper educational and environmental stimulation, completely different from that of the impulsive, immature juvenile offender presenting him or herself before a judge.

SCOTUS has made us a little more civilized with this decision but more has to be done; specifically it must be found unconstitutional (on the same 8th Amendment grounds of cruel and unusual punishment) to try children as adults-- after all they are not adults, they are children.

It is the not the fault of children that our capitalist society, plagued with institutional racism and inequality, throws many of them into horrible abusive environments devoid of decent educational opportunities, meaningful social programs, and inadequate living conditions (especially homelessness and uncaring foster care programs), and that as a result some of them end up in the for profit criminal "justice" system.

These observations are not just progressive rhetoric. They are based on current scientific studies. ScienceDaily (June 18, 2012), for example, recently published an article called "Children, Brain Development and the Criminal Law." In this article SD states that, "The legal system needs to take greater account of new discoveries in neuroscience that show how a difficult childhood can affect the development of a young person's brain which can increase the risk of adolescent crimes, according to researchers."

Research has been carried out by a group directed by Dr. Eamon McCrory of University College, London which show "that early adversity-- such as a very chaotic and frightening home life-- can result in a young child becoming hyper vigilant to potential threats in their environment. This appears to influence the development of brain connectivity and functions."

Dr. McCrory's team also discovered that, with these brain changes, children may may engage in more impulsive risky behavior than others and this "may increase both their vulnerability to mental health problems and also their risk  of problem behaviors."

Additional research at Oxford University, by Dr. Seena Fazel, shows that besides the risks posed by the social environment, children suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury [TBI], either by accident of abuse (such as assault) are much more likely to engage in violent crimes (thus coming in contact with the criminal "justice" system). On top of this  Professor H. Williams (University of Exeter) has found that about 45% of  "young offenders have TBI histories, and more injuries are associated with greater violence."

Professor Williams concludes, "There is big gap between research conducted by neuroscientists and the realities of the day to day work of the justice system. Although criminal behavior results from a complex interplay of a host of factors, neuroscientists and clinicians are identifying key risk factors that-- if addressed-- could reduce crime. Investment in earlier, focused interventions may offset the costs of years of custody and social violence."

But we should note, that even if early intervention fails, these children still need to looked after as children who need and deserve out help. Surely it behooves the adults who must deal with these children on all levels to find ways to help them not lock them away for the rest of their lives in adult prisons.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Over thirteen million young people covered in 2011 by the Affordable Care Act by Thomas Riggins

According to a report in Science Daily (June 8, 2012) 13.7 million young people either remained on, or signed on to, health care coverage through the health insurance of their parents. This is an early benefit coming from the Affordable Care Act [ACA], (the full ACA doesn't go into effect until 2014). SD thinks 6.6 million of these young people (19 to 25 year olds) "would likely not have been able to do so" without the passage of the ACA.

 This information is good news and comes from a report issued by the Commonwealth Fund ("Young, Uninsured and in Debt: Why Young Adults Lack Health Insurance and How the Affordable Care Act is Helping.") But the news is not all rosy. Almost 39% of young adults in the age group did not qualify for coverage and 36% had serious problems with medical bills causing them to lose their savings, default on tuition and student loans, change their career and educational plans, or run out of money for rent, heat or food-- according to the report.

 Republicans, who derisively refer to the ACA as "Obama Care" and promise to junk it if they capture the White House and Congress in the Fall, may not be concerned with the problems of these young people, especially since most of them come from low-income families (whose problems are not high on the list of Republican concerns), but the vast majority of the American people who are workers in the low and middle income ranges have everything to gain and nothing to lose by seeing the provisions of the ACA go into effect.

 Sara Collins of the Commonwealth Fund said, "While the Affordable Care Act has already provided a new source of coverage for millions of young adults at risk of being uninsured, more help is needed for those left behind. The law's major insurance provisions slated for 2014, including expanded Medicaid and subsidized private plans through state insurance exchanges, will provide nearly all young adults across the income spectrum with affordable and comprehensive health plans."

 Although the fight to add a public option to the ACA must continue, the plan as it stands today is the best and most comprehensive option the American people have at hand to alleviate the suffering and even premature deaths of thousands of people the Republicans would leave out in the streets for lack of ability to pay for costly overpriced private insurance. This is literally a life and death issue for thousands of people and the ACA must be preserved at all costs. As the Commonwealth Fund president, Karen Davis, remarked, "The Affordable Care Act will provide all Americans with affordable coverage, and help young adults achieve healthy, productive, and financially secure futures." That the Republicans, in their rush to serve the selfish interests of the corporate elite, the 1%, and are willing to sacrifice the health and well being of the American people in the process, should be a sufficient guarantee to ensure their defeat in November. Their only hope of victory rests on voter suppression and distortion of the facts regarding their true intentions.