As states across the country move to right-size their prison systems, managing to reduce incarceration, costs and crime, it is important to consider reform at the federal level as well. And when it comes to reforming our sentencing laws, there seems no better place to start than with the most vulnerable among us: our children. The United States is the only country known to impose life without the possibility of parole on people under the age of 18.
Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) took the lead on reform by introducing HR 6011, which would end life-without-parole and de facto life sentences for children in the federal criminal justice system. Westerman has been joined by a bipartisan team of co-sponsors — Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) and Lynn Jenkins (R-Kansas) — but other members of Congress must also show their support in this policy rooted in redemption, rehabilitation, and second chances.
While even children must be held accountable for their actions, every parent knows that children are not the same as adults. Their understanding of risk and consequences are limited and they often have more difficulty resisting pressure from peers and adults. But every parent also knows that children have a unique capacity for positive growth and change.
Imposing excessive sentences on children ignores what adolescent development research has documented. And in just the last five years, conservative states like North Dakota, Utah, and Westerman’s native Arkansas have led the way in banning life-without-parole for children. The Arkansas legislation, now titled Act 539, affects more than 100 people in the state and received broad bipartisan support in the legislature. Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia prohibit youth from being sentenced to a life in prison with absolutely no hope of re-entering as a productive member of society and no goal to work toward.
Should it pass, HR 6011 would ensure that children sentenced in the federal system have the opportunity to petition a judge to review their sentence after they have served 20 years in prison. They would then be afforded counsel at each of their review hearings – a maximum of three – where the judge would consider, among other factors, their demonstrated maturity, rehabilitation, and fitness to re-enter society. In other words, this bill does not guarantee release for anyone, but would ensure that children prosecuted and convicted of serious crimes in the federal system are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate whether they are deserving of a second chance. HR 6011 holds children accountable while providing a reason to pursue self-betterment. It gives hope to those who would otherwise be staring down a hopeless life sentence without the possibility of a second chance.
Thanks to new state laws, some individuals who were serving life without parole sentences they received as children have been released, giving them a chance to demonstrate incredible personal growth. Many of these formerly incarcerated children, who were once considered “the worst of the worst,” are now members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), a national group (and a project of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth) that aims to advocate for reform, cultivate leadership among the formerly incarcerated, and support others coming out of prison so that they are set up for success. They are having families, excelling professionally, and oftentimes using their second chance to better the communities from which they came (and often, in which they experienced trauma). They are proof that locking up a child and throwing away the key gives more power to government than is needed to protect public safety.
We hope other members of Congress will join Congressman Westerman’s bipartisan efforts to create a more fair and just system for our children who are convicted of serious crimes in the federal system. Mercy is justice, too, and no one is more deserving of our mercy and the opportunity for a second chance than our children.
This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on September 16, 2018.