An Arkansas congressman has introduced legislation that would end life without parole for juveniles locked up in the federal prison system and give inmates facing those sentences a chance at eventual release.
Rep. Bruce Westerman said it would give people “who strayed from the law during adolescence” the opportunity for a break on their sentences.
“This legislation does not guarantee release,” said Westerman, a Republican, in a statement released by his office. “Instead, it provides the opportunity for a rehabilitated individual whose crime was committed in his or her youth and who has served a minimum of 20 years to have a sentence reviewed by a judge to determine whether a second chance is merited.”
Spokesman Ryan Saylor said similar legislation had passed “with overwhelming bipartisan support” in Westerman’s home state.
“More and more states are introducing legislation like this,” Saylor said. “So the congressman wanted to use Arkansas as a model and bring this to the federal system as well.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the more than 3,800 federal inmates serving life without parole are doing that time for crimes committed as juveniles. The bill has been sent to the House Judiciary Committee, which hasn’t set a hearing on it yet.
Westerman has the backing so far of three fellow House members — Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas; and two California Democrats, Tony Cardenas and Karen Bass, who sits on the Republican-led Judiciary Committee.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down automatic life-without-parole terms for crimes committed by teenagers in 2012 and made the decision retroactive in 2016, giving an estimated 2,500 people an eventual chance of release. Since then, 19 of the 28 states that allowed those sentences have taken that punishment off the books, along with the District of Columbia, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a justice advocacy group.
“We’re grateful that the inhumane practice of sentencing children to die in prison is being addressed at the federal level through the leadership of Congressman Westerman of Arkansas,” Jody Kent Lavy, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. The bill “is a reflection of our belief that there is no such thing as a throwaway child and that no child should be sentenced to die in prison.”
Similar language is included in a Senate bill backed by that chamber’s Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
The justices didn’t eliminate life without parole for juvenile offenders completely — they just barred its application without a hearing before a judge, who would be required to weigh mitigating factors before passing sentence. Judges must “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court in the 2012 case, Miller v. Alabama. And the justices made clear they expected the punishment to be “uncommon.”
The defendant in that case, Evan Miller, is still awaiting a judge’s decision after getting his new hearing last year. If his sentence is reduced, he will still have to serve a minimum of 30 years before being eligible for parole.