Preserving hope, for juveniles in US prisons and soldiers in Israel

1. United States

Three states outlawed life imprisonment without parole for juveniles. Illinois, Minnesota, and New Mexico this year joined 25 other states and the District of Columbia in prohibiting the practice. In Minnesota and New Mexico, the legislation applies retroactively – dozens of people imprisoned for life may soon be eligible for parole.

In 2005, the Supreme Court recognized the developmental differences between juveniles and adults, which affect how young people make decisions and understand consequences. In 2012, the court wrote about the “cruel and unusual punishment” of a life sentence for juveniles. Advocates also point out the strong opportunity for rehabilitation – a 2020 study of 174 released juveniles in Philadelphia said that their recidivism rate was 1%.

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In our progress roundup, we look at how data analysis led to new approaches for helping people. Israel lowered the suicide rate among its troops, and three U.S. states ended life in prison without parole for people convicted as juveniles.

The three new laws differ in approach. Both New Mexico and Minnesota will allow most imprisoned juveniles to seek parole after serving 15 years, while most in Illinois will be eligible after 10. Illinois’ law applies to anyone convicted before age 21, while New Mexico’s and Minnesota’s laws apply only to those convicted before 18.

“In a flash point, this person does something that’s tragic,” said Preston Shipp, a lawyer with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “But it doesn’t mean that they cannot experience rehabilitation. It doesn’t mean that they’re beyond the hope of redemption.”  
Sources: Bolts, Montclair State University

2. Estonia  

Eero Vabamagi/Poistimees/Scanpix Baltix/Reuters

People march holding banners and signs supporting same-sex marriage at the June 2023 Baltic Pride festival in Tallinn, Estonia.

Estonia became the first former Soviet country to legalize same-sex marriage, joining at least 34 countries around the world. The law, which goes into effect in January 2024, expands existing legislation that already allowed same-sex civil unions and recognized such marriages performed abroad. Same-sex couples will also be permitted to adopt children for the first time.

In a 2019 European Union survey, 30% of Estonian respondents said they were “now fairly or very open about being LGBTI,” while the survey’s overall EU response was 47%. But in keeping with trends throughout much of the West, Estonian support for marriage equality has grown steadily, with younger, Estonian-speaking residents most likely in favor. Right-wing nationalists, whose influence in Estonia has increased over the past decade, had opposed the change. Estonian Human Rights Centre polls found that 53% of Estonians now support same-sex marriage – a substantial increase from the 34% reported in 2012.

“It’s like the state is finally accepting me,” Annely Lepamaa said. “Until now, I needed to fight for everything. I had to go to court to adopt my own children. … Now, I’m a human with rights.” 
Sources: Human Rights Watch, Reuters, European Agency for Fundamental Rights

3. Sierra Leone  

Researchers in Sierra Leone are mapping the location of seagrasses, the “lungs of the sea.” While less than 0.1% of the ocean, seagrasses provide oxygen-rich habitat for aquatic wildlife and per square kilometer can sequester more carbon than terrestrial forests. As these ecosystems face increasing threats from human activity, Sierra Leone is prioritizing continued research and protection of seagrass meadows, while seeking funding.

Sierra Leone’s Environmental Protection Agency has been mapping the plant since discovering it in the country’s waters in 2019. Last year, nonprofit groups released the first West African seagrass atlas. And now, in a coastal country that is heavily reliant on fishers and seafood for animal protein, the EPA has recruited locals who are “living with the resources” to the cause.

“I come and sit by the sea and watch to make sure that people don’t disturb the seagrass,” said one citizen monitor, Mustapha Beah. “[The researchers] told us that this seagrass is important to us – that’s why we do it.”
Source: The Washington Post

4. Israel

Baz Ratner/Reuters/File

Israeli soldiers from the Givati Brigade embrace after returning home from Gaza, Aug. 4, 2014.

The Israel Defense Forces cut soldier suicides in half, and it’s maintaining the lowered rate of risk. In 2005, Israel reckoned with high IDF suicide rates by starting a prevention system based on reduced access to weapons, psychological education, and prompt suicide investigations.

The United States has similarly struggled with high suicide rates among its service members, with a 2021 study finding that four times as many military personnel from the post-9/11 wars died by suicide than in war operations.

“Any suicide prevention program starts with understanding how you can eliminate weapon availability,” said Eyal Fruchter, who worked on the prevention plan. Before 2006, IDF troops were required to remain armed even when they returned home on weekends.

Researchers found that many soldiers died by suicide at home with their own weapons, and reducing access alone lowered IDF suicides by 30%. Clinicians said that soldiers were relieved to not bear the burden of their weapons while on leave.

More mental health officers were assigned, and “we made every soldier a gatekeeper for his friends,” said Dr. Fruchter. “Everyone was trained how to recognize someone who is not himself and how to offer help.”

Due to its success, elements of the IDF program were incorporated into Israel’s national suicide prevention efforts.
Sources: Think Global Health, The New York Times

5. Australia

Australia will phase out gill net fishing in the Great Barrier Reef by 2027. Often measuring more than a kilometer in length, gill nets hang vertically in the water to trap target fish, but they also capture bycatch that will be discarded. Other animals – particularly turtles, dugongs, and dolphins – can become entangled in the nets and drown.

To create 100,000 square kilometers (38,610 square miles) of net-free water in the world’s most extensive reef system, a $160 million plan (Australian; U.S.$109 million) will in part pay for the phased buyouts of current fishing licenses.

Gill nets became widespread with the use of synthetic materials in the 1960s and are already banned in some parts of the world. Recent legislation will phase them out in California, bringing the state in line with regulations in the rest of the United States. The United Nations banned gill nets longer than 2.5 kilometers in international waters in 1991.

Brittany Peterson/AP/File

A Utah State University research team removes a gizzard shad from a gill net in Arizona.

While Australian authorities emphasized that sustainable practices will help ensure the future of the fishing industry, fishers, particularly in the state of Queensland, are waiting to see how well the program is implemented.  
Sources: The Guardian, World Wildlife Fund Australia

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