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Why Ross v. Blake Opens a Door to Federal Courts for Incarcerated Adolescents

By Nika Cohen

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), particularly through its exhaustion provision, imposes significant obstacles on whether an incarcerated person may raise claims about conditions of confinement in court. The PLRA, as interpreted, demands proper compliance with a correctional facility’s grievance procedures, no matter how complex those procedures are. Though many struggle to comply, certain groups of the incarcerated population have been unduly prevented from litigating abuses. One such group is incarcerated adolescents, who — despite recent recognition that they should be differentiated from adults in the criminal justice system — remain subject to the same difficult exhaustion standard as incarcerated adults.

This Note argues that the Supreme Court’s most recent interpretation of the PLRA’s exhaustion provision demands a different analysis of attempts by nonordinary incarcerated groups to exhaust. In Ross v. Blake, issued in 2016, the Court clarified that grievance procedures must be “capable of use” or “accessible” for a person to be required to exhaust them; otherwise, there is no available remedy and the claim should not be dismissed for failure to exhaust. This Note uses adolescents incarcerated in adult facilities as an example of a nonordinary group to explain why they lack an available remedy under Ross. In light of recent research establishing that adolescents have significant cognitive and developmental differences from adults and are at a higher risk of victimization, courts should account for their increased difficulty in understanding and complying with adult facilities’ grievances procedures. Without an “accessible” means of obtaining relief, adolescents incarcerated in adult facilities should not be barred from the courts for their failure to exhaust.

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