WASHINGTON — A bipartisan criminal justice bill before the Senate would affect only a handful of federal juvenile offenders, but legal experts hope it may spark action at the state level.
The legislation, known as the First Step Act, would benefit thousands of inmates by reforming federal sentencing and prison laws. The bill calls for new programs aimed at improving prison conditions, makes it easier for offenders to earn credits to reduce their sentences and allows people convicted of crack cocaine offenses before 2010 to apply for release. The act also reduces minimum sentences for some nonviolent offenders and gives federal judges more discretion over whether to enforce mandatory minimum sentences.
“This is one of the best revisions of anything I’ve seen in a long time,” said Cheryl Massaro, the director of Florida’s Flagler County Youth Center and a former member of the Federal Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice. “I think it’s awesome, personally, and it is a step in the right direction.”
The act would have a limited impact on juvenile offenders because their cases are almost always handled in state and juvenile courts, where sentences tend to be less severe than in federal courts. There were only 10 juveniles under 18 housed in U.S. federal prisons as of October, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Most young people convicted of federal crimes end up in a juvenile facility instead of a prison due to laws that prevent juveniles from being incarcerated alongside adults.
Policies would have to trickle down
Tamara Mulembo, an assistant federal public defender in Tucson, Ariz., says her office sees about five juvenile clients a year. Nearly all of them are Mexican nationals caught crossing the border or teens who committed crimes in Indian country.
People charged with felonies on Indian reservations are often tried in federal court, which means a disproportionately high number of Native youth end up before a federal judge. As of 2011, roughly half of all juveniles in the federal system were Native American, according to a report by the Urban Institute.
For the First Step Act to have a broader impact on youth, experts say its policies would need to be adopted at the state level.
“Here we have the example being set at the top, and we hope it does trickle down,” Massaro said.
“If the feds move on this, it might spur action, to the degree that there are states that have not been reviewing their criminal statutes,” said Amy Davenport, a retired chief administrative judge in Vermont. “If there’s bipartisan support in Congress for this kind of thing, then all of a sudden that might make a bipartisan approach in Mississippi or Alabama a possibility that might not have happened before.”
If more states move to decrease mandatory minimum sentences, it would have a significant impact on how much time youth spend behind bars. While juveniles aren’t supposed to be subjected to mandatory minimums, many states allow the practice when the defendant is being tried as an adult. An estimated 200,000 youth are tried as adults every year in the United States, mostly for nonviolent offenses.
More interest on state level
In recent years there has been growing bipartisan interest in re-evaluating lengthy prison terms, even in conservative states like Georgia and Oklahoma, which have given judges more discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent offenders. Nearly 30 states have lightened their sentencing laws since 2002, according to data compiled by the civil rights group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
“There is obviously research done on things that were working in states … and they’re just going to now extend it to the federal programs,” Massaro said.
An unlikely alliance of liberal and conservative groups is supporting the First Step Act, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
Despite bipartisan support in the Senate and the White House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not said whether he will provide floor time to vote on the bill this year, according to Politico. The bill would need to pass the Senate in its current form before the end of the legislative session on Dec. 14 to become law.
Trump voiced support for the act earlier this month, saying it would give former inmates “a second chance at life after they have served their time.”