The Legality of Tattoo Discrimination in Employment

Leyuan Ma

Background

In recent years, tattoos have become increasingly popular as a form of body art in the United States. According to a 2019 survey, 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo, an increase from 21% in 2012. However, even as tattoos are now recognized as part of mainstream culture, many people are still judgmental towards tattoos due to their negative connotations, associating them with risky behavior, criminality, or gangs. As a result, people with tattoos are often concerned that their body art will hinder their chances of employment. Though a recent study argues that in practice “tattoos are not significantly associated with employment or earnings discrimination,” other research has shown that body art can be a source of employment discrimination, and individuals have indeed been dismissed from their jobs because of their tattoos.

Current Legislation

Is it legal for employers to discriminate against prospective or actual employees with tattoos? Currently, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees and job applicants from employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, but does not yet prohibit discrimination based on tattoos or other forms of body art. In addition, federal law allows employers to establish dress codes and grooming policies that require employees to cover up their tattoos in the workplace, as long as they are applied consistently and adhere to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s  guidelines. For instance, employers can order all employees to cover up visible tattoos, but cannot apply such a rule only to males or people of a certain ethnicity.

On September 29th, 2022, New York City Councilman Shaun Abreu introduced a new bill that would amend New York’s administrative code and prohibit employment, housing, and public accommodations discrimination on the basis of having a tattoo. It would create an exception for employment and apprentice training programs in which covering a tattoo is a bona fide occupational qualification, a vocational qualification that is reasonably necessary to carrying out a particular job function in the normal operation of a business or apprentice training program, and where there exists no less discriminatory means of satisfying the qualification. The bill does allow for additional exceptions, but it does not specify what those might be in its current draft language. For instance, the bill may still permit employers to discriminate against employees and applicants with tattoos featuring hate speech. Currently, the bill has been referred by Council to the Committee on Civil and Human Rights. Though Abreu’s new bill is certainly a progressive step, unfortunately no existing legislation—federal, state, or municipal—prohibits the discrimination against people with tattoos in the workplace.

Does banning tattoos in the workplace violate the First Amendment?

The most powerful argument against tattoo discrimination is that it is a violation of Americans’ First Amendment rights. According to Councilman Abreu, “tattoos are a form of personal self-expression that, too often, incur bias and discrimination from employers, landlords and service providers.” Tattooing can be seen as artistic creation. Bearing a tattoo on one’s skin also makes a strong statement about one’s personality and identity, and thus can also be a form of personal expression. Therefore, tattoos could be considered  free speech protected under the First Amendment, and thus ordering employees to cover up their tattoos is an infringement of freedom of speech. However, it should be noted that the First Amendment does not apply to private employers. It states that “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech,” thus only regulating the government. In other words, even though tattoos constitute free speech, private employers would not be violating the First Amendment if they ban tattoos in the workplace.

The First Amendment argument has indeed been used against governmental restrictions on tattooing. In Yurkew v. Sinclair (D. Minn. 1980), commercial tattooist David Yurkew challenged the refusal of the Minnesota State Fair to rent space for commercial tattooing at the fair. Yurkew contended that tattooing is an art form and that the process of creating a tattoo is protected First Amendment activity. The defendants disputed this claim, arguing instead that protection of the health of fair patrons and consumers justifies the exclusion of tattooing from the fair. In the end, the court ruled against Yurkew and held that the “actual process of tattooing […] is not sufficiently communicative in nature as to rise to the plateau of important activity encompassed by [the] First Amendment.”

In more recent years, courts have gradually come to recognize tattooing as a form of free speech. The Yurkew v. Sinclair rationale was rejected in Buehrle v. City of Key West in 2015, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit determined that “the act of tattooing is artistic expression protected by the First Amendment, as tattooing is virtually indistinguishable from other protected forms of artistic expression; the principal difference between a tattoo and, for example, a pen-and-ink drawing, is that a tattoo is engrafted onto a person’s skin rather than drawn on paper.” In addition, in Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach (2010), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that “in matter of first impression, [the] tattoo itself, [the] process of tattooing, and [the] business of tattooing are First Amendment protected forms of pure expression.” In Coleman v. City of Mesa (2012), the Supreme Court also ruled that a “tattoo itself is pure speech, and the process of tattooing is also expressive activity for First Amendment purposes.” In sum, according to the federal courts’ latest jurisprudents, tattoos and the act of tattooing are now forms of expression protected by the First Amendment.

So, a question arises: would federal employers be infringing on First Amendment rights if they ordered employees to cover up tattoos? Currently, many governmental jobs have restrictions on tattoos, though they vary in strictness; for example, the Connecticut State Police requires that no tattoo should be visible while on-duty in the summer uniform, while the New York State Police allows the exception of a single band tattoo on one finger, and both police departments prohibit offensive or extremist tattoos. What is the legal ground for such restrictions?

In Medici v. City of Chicago (2015), police officers alleged that the city’s policy requiring on-duty officers to cover their tattoos violated their First Amendment rights. The Court  recognized the officers’ tattoos as a form of personal expression, but held that a government employer can enact “certain restraints on the speech of its employees, restraints that would be unconstitutional if applied to the general public.” Moreover, the Court supported the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) “interest in ensuring that professionalism and uniformity is maintained,” and granted that “due to a tattoo’s unique character,” allowing on-duty police officers to display their tattoos “would undermine the CPD’s ability to maintain the public’s trust and respect, which would negatively impact the CPD’s ability to ensure safety and order.” Thus, in the federal sector, employers are also allowed to ban tattoos in the workplace. 

Inherent Discrimination

Through a close analysis of regulations and legal cases, we see that it is in fact legal to discriminate against tattoos in the workplace, both in private and federal sectors. This is to say, under current legislation, employers are allowed to use tattoos as a basis to distinguish candidates, and can require employees to cover up tattoos while on the job.

In Yurkew v. Sinclair (1980), the State Fair refused to rent space to a tattoo artist because it saw tattooing as a dangerous procedure which could cause the “transmission of communicable disease such as hepatitis.” In the following decades, tattooing has been proved to be safe under sterilized conditions, and the public has become more accepting of tattoos. However, thirty-five years after Yurkew, in Medici v. City of Chicago, the Court still held that “an on-duty police officer’s public display of any tattoo imaginable may, among other things, cause members of the public to question whether allegiance to their welfare and safety is paramount.” This in truth reflects people’s inherent bias towards tattoos, still seeing them as negative reflections on one’s character, which is contrary to the reality at present: though tattoos might have once been symbols of gang affiliation or risky conduct, nowadays they are more a form of personal expression with a variety of meanings. 

Is forcing servers or police officers to cover their tattoos really necessary for them to fulfill their duties? Are all people with tattoos really more risk-taking or less trustworthy? As Abreu proposed in his new bill, employers should be required to justify their restrictions on tattoos, and prove that covering a tattoo is the least discriminatory way to fulfill necessary vocational qualifications. Though federal jobs might require employees to adhere to stricter rules, employers should nevertheless reconsider the requirements in a contemporary setting.

The False Reality of Foreign Neutrality

Justin Murdock

Abstract

As the Russian juggernaut ravages through Ukrainian cities and civilians and eastern European democracy proves to be dire in the alarming crisis, American intervention without provoking an all-out nuclear war seems like a must. However, given that the United States is currently at peace with the aggressor, Russia, as per the Neutrality Act and corresponding penal statutes in Title 18, individual citizens cannot engage in acts of aggression. There is one caveat that must be urgently addressed: the geographic boundaries of conscription, organization, and intervention. Under current laws, military intervention can be undertaken by U.S. citizens beyond U.S. borders, leading to potential issues such as the shattering of neutrality and escalation of the war. Through examination of the statutes’ texts and applications in foreign affairs and historical cases, this piece concludes that the distinction between conscription domestically and abroad must be prohibited to ensure that neutrality is genuinely preserved in our modern day. 

Background

The Neutrality Act of 1794 and corresponding US Penal Code, known together as Title 18, outline the sorts of intervention individual actors from the United States can take in a foreign conflict. These two statutes date back to the founding of the  nation and were particularly relevant in regards to European militias during the 1790s. Given Putin’s bellicose crackdown on Ukraine, however, the relevance of these laws has resurfaced in the context of modern volunteers. While the Neutrality Act of 1794 has been reenacted and amended multiple times to clarify the associated penalties and breadth of its jurisdiction, it effectively lives on in 18 U.S.C. § 960. 

Three statutes in the Penal Code are of particular importance regarding relevant action modern peacekeeping conscripts can take: 18 U.S.C. § 958, 18 U.S.C. § 959, and 18 U.S.C. § 960. The first involves accepting commission on U.S. soil against a foreign polity who is at peace with the U.S.—in this case, Russia. The second involves enlisting in the service of a foreign entity on U.S. soil, which is irrelevant to whether the respective foreign force is at war. The third involves furnishing and organizing money for foreign militaries on U.S. soil in conjunction with participating in an expedition from the United States, which is an adaptation of the statute’s first rendition under President Washington’s Neutrality Act. While Congress certainly can and should give a firm position on U.S. military intervention in foreign operations, the distinction between foreign and domestic recruitment, organization, and fundraising of the Neutrality Act should be repealed given the fallacy it provides abroad. Determined militants may take steps on foreign territory to effectively make it null and void. 

Legal Bases

The three statues in the Penal Code have gone through multiple trials and errors throughout events involving foreign militias—from the founding of the statute during the Revolutionary War to the recent applications in Operation Gideon in Venezuela and the Gambian coup d’état attempt. Title 18 is undoubtedly key to the integrity of American foreign policy, and by no means does this argument seek to diminish its past or present importance. After all, armed citizens with a desire to overthrow foreign powers for the sake of alleged domestic peacekeeping would throw the international system into anarchy; as such, penalties must exist to keep ambitious militants in check. That said, the exception regarding American military actors outside U.S. turf could allow belligerents to evade prosecution and retribution as per 18 U.S.C. §§ 958-60. These laws cite people susceptible to prosecution as “any citizen of the United States who, within the jurisdiction thereof,” or “whoever, within the United States,”—meaning, technically signing up outside U.S. soil would be legal. Regardless of the neutrality laws, would signing up to participate in a foreign conflict (that the U.S. has stated neutrality on) outside U.S. soil make a difference? Yes. On principle, would signing up violate this neutrality? Yes—it has, and it will regarding the Russo-Ukrainian War. 

The Penal Codes have been put under scrutiny regarding certain hostilities and instances of foreign intervention. Notably, Gayon v. McCarthy (1920) set forth a clarification that the furnishing of funds on U.S. turf would be sufficient to prove a violation of the Neutrality Laws. Additionally, under United States v. Murphy (1898), “military enterprises” composed and premeditated on U.S. land are grounds for violations once more. While these laws address the issues of their respective times, our increasingly-digitized world makes cyber-conscription and other means of advocacy for belligerent forces significantly easier for civilians—with boundless websites and outlets for recruitment abroad. For example, the laws present issues with digital conscription with acceptance under Sec. 958 and enlistment in Sec. 959. Additionally, though Sec. 959 has addressed the arrangement of payment, one must consider pro-bono work or payment received through non-governmental organizations representative of civilians.

Due to the specific language set forth in these laws, breaking neutrality in a way that conflicts  with U.S. foreign policy is a criminal act. Essentially, one can avoid this criminalization by launching a private war, sparking a coup, or fostering a bellicose political movement if such conscription and organization occurs outside the United States. In essence, however, they are non-neutral representatives of the United States. If a warmongering veteran joins a brigade in Ukraine on Ukrainian turf, brandishing an American patch and rifle, Russian corps will not know of American neutrality laws or assume that America is merely neutral in this crisis. While one can certainly believe that Putin’s heinous, excessive, and certainly unwarranted campaign should be denounced and chastised, one simultaneously needs to consider the Pandora’s box the Neutrality Act leaves open for alleged freedom fighters.  

Conclusions

Given the review of the vague terms set forth in various aspects of American penal law, and precedents set in case laws related to such statutes, this paper calls for the repeal of the Neutrality Act’s domestic and foreign conscription nuance. Thus, the Justice Department must eliminate the distinction, thereby banning foreign intervention, or be firm in support of civilian aid. Obviously, the former could potentially escalate, drawing all of NATO into the conflict, meaning the evident choice would be the latter.
The involvement of U.S. troops would dangerously escalate the crisis, and the burden set forth in the Neutrality Act does not help with independent U.S. conscripts dodging the restrictions and engaging militarily with Putin’s forces. As proven in past military operations, whether it be the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or even Ukraine itself in 2014, these volunteers often prove to be untrained extremists zealous for bloodshed and martyrdom. While de-escalation of the crisis and retribution of the autocratic Russia are a necessity, the Neutrality Act should not be the venue for passionate Americans to do so and should urgently be repaired to avoid military escalation. This statute constitutes a false reality of foreign neutrality, ready to implode with unforeseen military consequences.

The Forgotten Voices: Power Imbalances in Guatemalan Investor-State Dispute Settlements

by Ava Peters

On June 13, 2012, Yolanda Oquelii, leader of the La Puya Peaceful Resitance movement in Southern Guatemala, became the subject of an assassination attempt. She was targeted for starting a non-violent protest, together with many other brave women and men from her community, against a gold mining operation near their homes. They led a sit-in at the “El Tambor ” mine to protect their land from the extreme social and environmental degradation caused by exploitative practices carried out by US-based company Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (KCA). Their practices have affected air quality, as well as flora, fauna, top soil and the available quantity of water for local residents. Ever since, community members have continued their sit-in to keep vigil around the clock in the face of violent police harassment, anti-riot intervention and various legal challenges. Eventually, in 2016, their persistent protest triggered a formal lawsuit, setting off a chain reaction of cases which escalated through the Guatemalan court system. 

In 2014, the Guatemalan NGO Centre de Acción Legal, Ambiental y Social de Guatemala (CALAS) filed a case against the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) contending that “Exmingua”, the Guatemalan subsidiary of KCA, did not hold a valid operating permit based on its failure to carry out community consultations required under Guatemalan law and ILO Convention 169. KCA contended that this claim was ‘meritless’ and questioned whether there was any Guatemalan law requiring the implementation of ILO 169 at the time when the mine was constructed.  However, in November 2015, the Guatemalan Supreme Court held in favour of CALAS and issued a final decision in 2016 requiring the suspension of mining activities at El Tambor. But just as the valiant efforts of La Puya seemed successful, KCA launched a counterattack, filing an ISDS case against the state of Guatemala claiming damages of $300 million.

What are ISDS Cases? 

ISDS––or investor-state dispute settlement––cases are legal challenges that allow foreign investors to resolve disputes with the government of the country in which their investment was made. They are based on legislation found in International Investment Treaties between states which typically include substantive protections and obligations that protect the economic rights of the investors. 

The international treaty relied upon in the case of Guatemala was the DR-CAFTA (Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement). KCA argued that Guatemala was in breach of the international investor agreement terms that ensured ‘fair and equitable treatment, a minimum standard of treatment, indirect expropriation, and full protection and security.’ They claimed that the ongoing protests illegally blocked the entrance to the mine sites, preventing Exmingua from “using and enjoying” its exploration license. In addition, they argued that they were “arbitrarily and unlawfully” harmed by the MEM’s suspension of the export certificate. They calculated that they were deprived of the value[h] of the El Tambor project, amounting to $150 million, and the Santa Margarita project (of at least the same, if not greater value). Additionally, they allege that they have suffered a loss of $500,000 when they prohibited the exporting concentrate shipments. 

KCA martialled a convincing argument in the eyes of arbitrators: it is their gold mine, but the case fails to incorporate the struggles of those involved: it is also a gold mine responsible for numerous abuses against local communities, posing health and environmental risks to Guatemalan citizens. Local communities have faced violence, repression, and criminalization, whilst background forces continue to deplete the region’s natural resources. It’s an interesting consideration to make given that these claims aren’t rooted in empirical evidence. Considering this, should these facts be considered in the ISDS case? Past cases involving the DR-CAFTA suggest otherwise. Guatemala faced another claim arising out of an investment in a Guatemalan electricity distribution company by the U.S. investor Teco Guatemala Holdings LLC––a case that was decided in favor of the investor. Similar to the KCA case, Teco claimed Guatemala breached the ‘fair and equitable treatment / minimum standard of treatment including denial of justice claims’ under the IIA. The ruling emphasized the distinct power asymmetry in ISDS cases: the tribunal reasoned purely on the basis of the treaty, making no effort to acknowledge the stake held by third parties. 

Problems with ISDS

While particularly problematic, the Guatemalan case is not unique. Hundreds of ISDS cases are still pending, forcing us to question the effectiveness of the system and the millions of communities left waiting for their fate to be determined by a system pitted against them. 

Arguably, the most pressing flaw of the ISDS system is that it tends to cause a “chilling effect” on the regulatory system: a situation in which the threat of an investor’s potential claims leads to governmental reluctance to adopt policies out of fear of being sued by huge conglomerates. In other words: simply knowing that a company might sue stops smaller host states from protecting the rights of their citizens. With reference to the KCA case, the minimum claim of $300 million, if granted, would place an extortionate burden on Guatemala’s coffers. While Guatemala is in a better position than other developing countries to satisfy this debt, many other countries would face bankruptcy when confronted with such a large claim. 

Of greater concern is the lack of transparency during ISDS disputes. Compared to the US legal system, ISDS proceedings are relatively opaque and exclusive. Tribunals can decide whether to accept or reject third-party amicus briefs and, unlike other legal recourse[s], third parties have no ability to intervene, leaving local communities without a say in which their interests are significantly impacted.

ISDS cases do not enjoy a consistent thread of jurisprudence. While precedents in this form of international arbitration do exist, there is no doctrine of stare decisis, so that a previous ruling on one issue from an analogous case does not ensure that a ruling in a pending case will be the same. Cases decided regarding similar matters, even involving the same country and with the same kind of investor have produced different results. This lack of consistency is exacerbated by the absence of an appellate system to correct substantive errors and ensure predictable outcomes. Arbitrators and decision-makers can be subject to bias or constrained by a lack of independence, resulting in decisions favoring investors, with no checks and balances. The rights of local communities and the state at large are left unacknowledged, whilst the rights of investors have the potential to be overemphasized. Creating a trend, the power imbalance inherent to ISDS is only set to increase. 

Finally, the cost and duration of ISDS cases is particularly problematic. Arbitration is usually a long, drawn-out process that negatively impacts host states far more than investors. A King’s College London study revealed that ISDS tribunals took on average 181 days, and 103 days for annulment committees to reach a decision. The written phase for submitting briefs – without annulment – took on average 407 days. The KCA case was brought to the court in 2016, and for 5 years has been consuming money, time, and resources whilst wreaking havoc on powerless local communities. As environmental journalist Louis Magriel observed …”This type of arbitration rejects community self-determination and the role of the government to make decisions that protect the best interests of their population.” (Gold Mining and Violence by Louis Magriel).

Potential Solutions 

ISDS dispute resolutions must produce fair, efficient, coherent and consistent solutions. At present, this is not the situation – we need to consider improvements which recognize and uphold the rights of all parties involved. Various short and long term solutions have been proposed. 

The ‘quick fix’ solution to the shortcomings of ISDS would be dispute prevention. This involved creating institutions that act as a precautionary structure aiming to reduce the legal temperature between investors and states. It would focus on developing specific working mechanisms which mediate between all parties involved. As appealing as the immediacy of this solution sounds, it is not viable long term; more permanent solutions need to be considered to properly uphold the rights of those other than the investors. 

Longer-term reform of the ISDS system could be a hopeful, albeit lofty, aspiration to redress the power balance.  Adapting ISDS policy through the institution itself, for example through making it easier to submit amicus briefs or allow the state to establish bi-legal challenges that mirror the ISDS suit, could help create a more equal system. However, the efficacy of these outcomes are limited. Any reform of the ISDS system will be long and tiresome, and at present, there is no clear solution. 

Another potential solution, as advocated by the Columbia Center for Sustainable Investment, is to terminate or withdraw from IIA’s altogether. The Center produced a report posing some potential reforms: “Chief among [ways for states to exit or mitigate the recognized adverse effects of the more than 3,300 treaties], we’ve advocated for termination (or withdrawal of consent to ISDS arbitration) of these treaties, as a near-term solution, alongside any longer-term project.” However, this impacts the economic interests of both state and investor, so is likely to be opposed by both the governments and corporate actors involved. 

Arguably, the most extreme yet effective solution would be to create an entirely new system alternative to ISDS. Countries in Latin America have led in this pursuit, establishing the ‘Centro de Solución de controversias en Materia de Inversiones’ which aims to establish a new mechanism to resolve investment disputes. However, progress has been slow and the states involved have faced various disagreements. The EU has also attempted to create a ‘multilateral investment court,’ but the changes made from the current ISDS system are minor and have failed to consider the key shortcomings of inefficiency, lack of transparency and failure to uphold the rights of all parties. Ultimately, whilst the idea of creating an entirely new system seems optimal, the actual act of establishing one that fits the needs of all stakeholders is complex and the potential for completion is low. 
Through briefly outlining some major potential solutions, it’s obvious there is no clear answer. Yet, there is a clear goal: to make the ISDS structure more equitable and to protect the rights of marginalized, developing nations that have been exploited by huge companies. We need to continue the fight to reform the system and ensure that stakeholders don’t get left out of the conversation.

The U.S. Criminal Justice System Needs to Start Treating Children Like Children

by Bianca Ortiz-Miskimen

On any given day, tens of thousands of incarcerated children are forced to eat, sleep, and learn in juvenile detention centers and adult prisons across the United States. 

News stories of children being charged for harmless behaviors have become increasingly publicized, with examples ranging from not completing homework and participating in cafeteria food fights to stealing 25-cent candy. While there are child offenders who commit more serious crimes, they all deserve fair trials and sentences that take into account their young age.  

Research from Stanford University shows that children have difficulty understanding the long-term consequences of their decisions and lack cognitive control during emotional situations. Experts also link moral conscience to the prefrontal cortex, which does not fully develop until adulthood and is often delayed in children who experience trauma as a result of being victimized early in life.

When a child is charged with a crime, a court will decide whether they will be tried as a child or an adult based largely on the severity of the crime. Those with less serious offenses are treated as children and have their cases heard by juvenile judges that have the power to remand them to a juvenile detention center while those treated as adults may be remanded to an adult prison with protective custody.

Meanwhile, parents of child offenders are forced to foot the bill for nightly housing in juvenile detention centers. Laws requiring these parental payments were meant to avoid burdening taxpayers and to encourage parents to keep their children out of trouble. However, the reality is that most of these parents are low-income and incapable of paying. Although some states have decided to end this practice, laws about charging parents are highly decentralized and can vary from county to county, creating large disparities.

To combat the stress of incarceration on young children and their parents, both New York and New Jersey have recently passed legislation to raise the age at which children may be tried in court as adults. However, the fact remains that in 22 states, there are no minimum age requirements for transferring a child into adult criminal courts, meaning that a child of any age in those states could end up in an adult prison for the rest of their life.

The U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged the issue of excessive sentencing for child offenders in landmark cases Roper v. Simmons (2005) and Graham v. Florida (2009), in which the Court reversed decisions to impose the death penalty on a juvenile offender and to sentence a minor to life without parole for a non-homicidal offense, respectively. The Supreme Court opinions to reverse these prior holdings were made on the grounds that the childrens’ original sentences violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Rights for juvenile offenders were expanded further by the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016). In Miller v. Alabama, Miller appealed his sentence of life in prison without parole for a homicidal offense on the grounds that punishing a 14-year-old for the rest of his life was cruel and unusual. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed his sentence, with the majority opinion concluding that life without parole is a disproportionate punishment for a juvenile, thus affirming that sentencing for child offenders must be treated as constitutionally different from adult offenders.

This decision was reaffirmed in Montgomery v. Louisiana, in which Miller v. Alabama was used as precedent to assert that sentencing schemes that impose mandatory life sentences onto juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. The Court held a 6-3 decision in favor of Montgomery, stating that the Miller decision applied retroactively to Montgomery’s case. 

In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote, “In light of what this Court has said in Roper, Graham, and Miller about how children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability, […] prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

Montgomery, who is 73 years old but was just 17 years old at the time of his crime, is now eligible to be considered for parole. His case has also opened the door for other cases of child offender sentencing decisions to be re-evaluated based on this new standard. Thus far, Montgomery v. Louisiana has allowed more than 500 offenders to be released on parole. 

However, the Supreme Court ought to recognize the capacity for rehabilitation of child offenders beyond the scope of life sentences. Even short stays in juvenile centers can have a profound negative impact on children due to harsh living conditions. For example, two juvenile correctional facilities in Wisconsin were recently hit with a class-action lawsuit in J.J. v. Litscher (2017) for keeping children in solitary confinement, spraying them with mace, and denying them therapeutic programs. 

Confinement in juvenile centers has become particularly harmful during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused centers to cut visits from families and friends to prevent the spread of the virus, leaving thousands of incarcerated young people feeling extremely isolated.

Despite clear issues, some have argued that punishing minors will serve a positive long-term function by teaching children at a young age that their actions have consequences. The problem is that not all children are subject to the same punishments. 

While white children make up the largest share of juvenile detainees in 45 of 50 states in the U.S. as of 2019, children of color — particularly African American children — are disproportionately represented in juvenile detention centers and are referred to juvenile courts at a higher rate than their white peers. This can be attributed to a number of factors, the most troubling of which include racial bias from judges and prosecutors.

In 2018, the Senate reauthorized the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act to update national standards on the judicial treatment of minors. The bill, introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IO) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) aims to create restrictions on locking children up for statute offenses (eg. skipping school or running away from home), reduce racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, and support alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Proposed alternatives include behavior management programs, problem-solving courts, street and home-based services, and drug abuse prevention and education services.

Experts in the fields of psychology and constitutional law have made steps towards affirming that children are not as capable as adults of understanding the consequences of their actions. Now, federal, state, and local laws must reflect this truth and discontinue practices that are overly punitive and insufficiently rehabilitative towards child offenders who cannot yet fully appreciate the weight of their transgressions.

It’s Not Just Me, It’s Also You: How Shared DNA Complicates Consent

by Ethan Magistro

With just a sample of your DNA, you, your immediate family members, and many other distant relatives can be identified. Your genetic information can be used to determine you and your families’ insurance policies, expose medical conditions you didn’t even know you had, and, in the worst case, be used to identify and arrest someone you may be distantly related to. The deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) contained within every cell of our bodies holds intimate details about each of us. Yet when users send sample DNA to direct-to-consumer (DTC) testing kit companies, only their consent is needed to share information that belongs to many of their family members. Because of this, I argue we should drastically rethink our understanding of DNA. Rather than conceptualizing DNA as analogous to other types of private property that can be traded with individual consent, DNA trade should require the shared consent of family members. The difficulty in obtaining that consent points to a colossal need for the development of genetic privacy laws.

To understand why DNA should be understood as a form of shared property, it will be helpful to outline the economic and legal landscape of consumer genetic testing. The past few years saw a spike in interest for DNA testing and an explosion in the DTC testing kit market, which is dominated by AncestryDNA and 23andMe. Although the market has died down since then, worries about political and enforcement abuses of genetic information and medical privacy concerns are still in focus. 

Concerns about enforcement abuses of genetic information usually involve the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. This was exemplified in Maryland v. King, a U.S. Supreme Court case which held that genetic testing is similar to fingerprinting, and is therefore a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, to the chagrin of privacy advocates. The latter issue of medical privacy deals with Title I and II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act Of 2008 (GINA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), both of which are notoriously lackluster in protecting privacy, especially regarding DTC testing, which neither law protects. Beyond this, some states have genetic privacy laws with varying levels of consent required by companies. Many of them provide little extra protection. This lack of privacy protection has caused the DTC industry to mostly self-regulate, which has been spotty at best: in their privacy policies, some genetic-testing companies wrongly claim they comply with HIPAA, while some companies have no privacy policies at all.

A lack of strong DNA privacy laws presents an imminent threat to genetic privacy because of how valuable a sample of DNA can be. Genetic information’s longevity, immutability (you cannot change your DNA like you can a lost password) and predictive ability about future health make it extremely valuable. Yet DNA is unique in that it is able to identify an individual as well as their family members, since people share large portions of DNA with their relatives. This is why it has been so often used to gain leads in criminal cases

Being so valuable, it makes sense why shoddy privacy policies exploit a lack of laws to gain control of DNA. Deceptive policies mislead individuals to give away most of the control over genetic information, and, therefore, their family’s genetic information, without ever knowing it. With that control, companies can trade or exchange this data, often selling it to unknown third-party companies who can use it as they wish. Bigger companies like AncestryDNA or 23andMe are no safer. They may truthfully claim they do not sell your genetic data to third party companies, but the independent labs they send the sample to for analysis make no such guarantees

It is hard for consumers to notice that. A large company’s connection to third parties is often inconspicuously snuck into their privacy policies. Before it was shut down in late 2020, AncestryHealth, the division of AncestryDNA designed to identify genetic health risks, sent DNA samples to a third-party group called PWNHealth for analysis. A link to PWN’s privacy policy is at the very end of AncestryDNA’s terms and conditions, which itself is in small print at the bottom of the AncestryDNA webpage. PWNHealth’s privacy policy is far less robust than Ancestry’s. Two points stick out:

You have the right to request in writing that we restrict how your health information is used or disclosed. For most requests, under the law, we are not required to agree to your request.

and

“If you request that Ancestry delete your information held by Ancestry, such request will not result in the deletion of information held by PWNHealth. Such information will be retained by PWNHealth in accordance with applicable law and this Privacy Policy.”

It is clear that PWNHealth has no intention of removing or restricting its use of submitted genetic data. Even if PWNHealth claims that they will only trade “non-identifiable data,” the shocking ease with which genetic data can be re-identified makes this claim essentially worthless. So while AncestryDNA will not sell your genetic data, PWNHealth can and will.

Despite all of these concerns, PWNHealth is still acting within the law so long as a user consents to its terms of use and, therefore, how it uses your genetic data. But is an individual’s consent enough considering that their DNA sample contains information about their relatives? It should not be. DNA contains valuable, identifiable information about a user’s family and distant relatives that should not be shared without their knowledge. Instead, companies who offer DTC genetic testing should require consent from those with whom an individual shares the majority of their DNA.

Already that idea sounds burdensome. Should someone really have to call their parents, grandparents, and siblings if they want to understand more about their own medical information? What about those who are estranged from their families, or people who are adopted and do not know their biological relatives? Here, a middle path exists between individual consent and shared consent. Perhaps for medical information, relevant to an individual who may want to alter their lifestyle to decrease the risk of a condition manifesting, an individual should use a DTC without providing shared consent. A kit designed to find unknown relatives who may wish to remain private, on the other hand, should require companies to ask for consent from those relatives.

Yet this argument ignores the threat that third-party actors pose. The importance of genetic privacy is less about keeping individual issues private from the family and more about keeping familial DNA out of the hands of third parties like PWNHealth who can trade that genetic information and other groups who could de-identify it or sell it. If you must get a genetic test for medical reasons, it would be wiser to do so in a clinical setting, where HIPAA and GINA offer comprehensive privacy and protection. Without that same protection, DTC tests put many of your relatives’ information at risk.

What could a stronger form of shared consent look like in the DTC arena? One analogy that provides some insight comes from a complaint filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Facebook in which the FTC challenged Facebook’s misleading privacy policies and deceptive practices. The complaint alleged that Facebook “told its users that they could limit those who could see their posts to just ‘Friends,’ when in reality—and without warning to the user—doing so would also allow developers of third-party applications used by their ‘Friends’ to access the post.” In other words, “third party applications” of a user’s Facebook friends could look at that user’s posts even if the user did not consent to that action.

This is not a perfect analogy. A post shared with a friend, which is then unwittingly shared with a third-party application, is not the same as DNA, which is physically shared by multiple people. Nonetheless, the FTC acted when Facebook gave third parties access to a user’s post, even when that user had no option to consent to this. In a case involving genetic data, it’s feasible that the FTC could challenge DTC companies for not adequately informing users that their familial genetic data, which they provided without their family’s consent, was now in third-party companies’ hands.

Like those users who had a reasonable expectation that only their friends would see their posts, people who have never taken a DNA test or given away a DNA sample would not expect their genetic information to be in the hands of a group such as PWNHealth. There is a reasonable expectation that genetic information is private. If someone wants to give away valuable information about you — even if it is partly their information too — they ought to seek out your consent.   

Ultimately, the easiest remedy for the lack of genetic familial privacy and the need for shared consent would be stronger genetic privacy laws. The lack of robust genetic privacy laws already leaves consumers unprotected against bad actors looking to profit from their DNA. As genetic testing technology improves and we become able to gain more information from smaller samples of someone’s genome, not having ownership over your DNA could pose a threat to your descendants in the future. Technology that fails to respect these repercussions and ignores the need for consent from multiple parties cannot continue to outpace legislation. Although the complexity of shared consent and its complication of privacy policies leave room for the FTC to police weaker terms and conditions, it would be far more beneficial for all parties if strict regulation, created through legislation, protected the blueprint of life.