Mimesis Law
19 September 2019

Ke’jorium McKnight Never Belonged In Solitary, Ended Up There Anyway

Aug. 18, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Sunday’s New York Times ran an article by Timothy Williams casting light on yet another dilemma facing the criminal justice system when dealing with juvenile offenders. In the article, Locked in Solitary at Age 14: The Risks of Juvenile Isolation, Williams follows the sad story of Mississippi teenager Ke’jorium McKnight, who has been awaiting trial for two years after being certified to do so as an adult.

He was kept in solitary confinement not for behavioral reasons or as punishment but because he is being tried as an adult. Under Mississippi law, that means he must be held in an adult jail. And federal law requires that if he is held in an adult jail, he must be kept separate from other inmates, for his own protection.

Although the article spends an undue amount of time attempting to downplay McKnight’s criminal history and potential danger to society, it does bring up yet another significant issue facing the juvenile criminal justice system. Regardless of whether a juvenile offender is a misunderstood youth or the next Charles Manson, the issue of juveniles in solitary confinement represents yet another failure of the System to adequately deal with young offenders. Unlike many of those challenges, this particular issue seems relatively easy to resolve.

The challenges presented in dealing with juvenile offenders are, in many ways, akin to those of mentally ill offenders.   Both are generally treated as having de facto diminished capacity and are, at least in theory, handled accordingly.   The reality, however, is that juvenile offenders are generally viewed with less understanding and compassion than mentally ill offenders for a variety of reasons.

Theoretically, mentally ill offenders can be identified upon entry into jail and seen by mental health professionals. These mental health professionals can subsequently classify the offender into a treatment plan that takes into account the offender’s mental illness, medications, and level of danger to himself or others. At last glance, there was no such diagnosis for merely being a juvenile. Barring special circumstances (such as mental illness), juvenile offenders are generally treated the same as each other. A mentally ill offender may be regarded as “crazy” for a having committed a heinous crime, while a juvenile is often just considered to be mean.

Those juveniles who stand trial as adults are usually certified for one of two reasons. The first reason is that the crime with which he or she is charged is considered to be so heinous that it warrants adult treatment. The second reason is that the juvenile’s criminal history is so significant that the juvenile system is viewed as having been ineffective. Time to move up to the big leagues.

Even if a juvenile is certified to stand trial as an adult, that doesn’t mean he or she is not both mentally and physically a juvenile. Neither of these reasons has any bearing on a child’s ability to handle adult prison. It is easy to see the conundrum that exists in resolving how to appropriately detain a certified juvenile – the offender is considered to be “too adult” to be housed with his or her fellow juveniles, yet is still “too juvenile” to be housed with the adults. The case of Ke’jorium McKnight, however, seems to illustrate the exact wrong way to handle it.

As Williams noted, solitary confinement is supposed to be a punishment typically reserved for only the worst of offenders. Prisoners at Colorado’s notorious Administrative Maximum Facility (also known as Supermax) are held in solitary confinement. It is difficult to reconcile the idea of a juvenile defendant being held under the same conditions as Ted Kaczynski, Eric Rudolph and other terrorists.

Fortunately, not all jurisdictions handle their juvenile offenders in such an arcane manner. Steve Halpert, the Juvenile Division Chief of the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, explained how juveniles are handled in Houston, Texas.

The practice has been changed a bit in Harris County. Kids who have not been certified [to stand trial as an adult] can stay in the juvenile detention center until the day they turn 18, then they are transferred to the county jail if their juvenile case is still pending. If a juvenile gets certified and is under seventeen, he remains in the juvenile detention center until he turns seventeen, then gets transferred to the county jail.

Furthermore, Halpert noted, once a certified juvenile turns seventeen (and is transferred to the Harris County Jail), he or she is still housed separately from inmates who are eighteen-years-old or older.   Although the Harris County Jail is considerably larger than the Forrest County Jail where Ke’jorium McKnight is housed, lack of space and manpower does explain his solitary confinement.

Soon after he interviewed McKnight, the Forrest County Jail facility moved McKnight “to another wing of the jail, where he is being held with three or four other juveniles.” If the jail had the ability to make this move so quickly after the New York Times reporter came to visit, one has to wonder why McKnight had not been housed with other juveniles all along.

Regardless of whether a juvenile offender is being handled as a juvenile or as an adult under the law, the fact remains that the system is still housing a person under seventeen years of age. Even if that juvenile is the next Charles Manson, treating him as such is sure to exacerbate those problems.

What is so disturbing about the case of Ke’Jorium McKnight is that it appears that the Forrest County Jail simply found the easiest solution that allowed them to comply with minimum legal standards for dealing with certified juveniles. Although the jail can claim that McKnight’s solitary confinement was for his own protection and done with no malice, there is an extraordinary level of indifference here.

That level of indifference resulted in a juvenile offender being treated far worse than an adult offender charged with the same crimes.

Main image via Flickr/jmiller291

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