Law & the Courts

GOP Rep. Aims to Expand Criminal-Justice Reform to Minors

Congressman Bruce Westerman (R, Ark.) (House Budget Committee GOP)
Arkansas Republican Bruce Westerman's proposal is the right thing to do — and politically savvy, too.

It’s no secret that CNN commentator Van Jones is a liberal, but he recently did the unthinkable and praised conservatives for leading the way in passing a sweeping criminal-justice–reform package, the First Step Act, last year. “The conservative movement in this country, unfortunately from my point of view, is now the leader on this issue of reform,” Jones told a crowd at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “That was supposed to be my issue.”

As Republican leaders grapple with how to build on the bipartisan momentum created by passage of the First Step Act last year, they would do well to line up behind Representative Bruce Westerman (R., Ark.) in his efforts to reform the way that the federal justice system sentences minors. Westerman introduced today a legislative package that seeks to spare juveniles from the excesses of the tough-on-crime policies to which both major parties have adhered for decades.

The package includes three bills. Of these, a bill called Sara’s Act has the best chance of attracting bipartisan support. The bill exempts juveniles from mandatory-minimum sentences for crimes they committed against adults who trafficked or abused them. Named after Sara Kruzan, who spent 20 years in prison for murdering her abusive pimp, the bill won’t be a tough sell.

Kruzan was eventually released in 2014 following a lengthy legal battle and has said she now forgives the man who trafficked and raped her before she killed him. “He was a person,” she told KPBS of her abuser after she was released. “And he was a father, of course, and I think about what happened to him that made him make those decisions in his life. I mean no one wakes up and says, ‘Hey, I’m going to go traffic children.’”

As Westerman sees it, Kruzan’s evident rehabilitation occurred despite, and not because of, the decades she spent behind bars. It’s a sentiment he believes his colleagues on both sides of the aisle will get behind. “People don’t have a lot of sympathy for someone who’s trafficking a minor, but they have a lot of sympathy for minors that are in that position, and I think that’s a bipartisan issue,” he told National Review.

It should be easy for lawmakers of both parties to support sparing Americans such as Kruzan from harsh mandatory sentences. Westerman is betting that a strong bipartisan consensus will convince the White House to get on board after it received favorable coverage after the passage of the First Step Act.

The Trump administration paired the signing of that bill — which eliminated mandatory-minimum sentences for a number of drug offenses, among other reforms — with the commutation of 63-year-old Alice Johnson’s life sentence for a first-time drug offense she committed in 1996. Kruzan’s case presents a similar opportunity for this made-for-TV White House: Trump standing somberly next to Kruzan, expressing sympathy for her plight, before affecting his brusque Queens persona while offering a note of praise for the act of self-defense that landed her in jail. White House officials have in fact already expressed interest in backing Sara’s Act; Westerman met with them on Monday and, while he told National Review he had nothing “official” to announce, he said they will likely go public with their support soon after he introduces it.

The other two pieces of legislation that Westerman introduced on Thursday afternoon lack the obvious advantages of Sara’s Act, which is a narrow bill designed to help sex-trafficked minors, an exceedingly sympathetic group. The rest of the package is broader and likely to be more controversial on both sides of the aisle. One bill would ensure that Americans can’t be sentenced for life without parole for crimes committed before their 18th birthdays. Another would require that parole boards consider the “diminished culpability” of minors relative to adults when determining an offender’s release date. The U.S. is the only country in the world that allows minors to be sentenced to life without parole, though the practice has been banned by 21 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Sentencing Project.

What kind of reception might these bills receive? If the negotiations surrounding the First Step Act hold any lesson, it’s that small subsets of lawmakers on both ends of the ideological spectrum are likely to stand in the way of passage. For progressives, the proposed reforms did not go far enough: While the First Step Act gave most federal inmates the opportunity for an earlier release by expanding the population eligible for “earned-time credits,” it did not explicitly seek to redress racial disparities in the justice system. Asked about the potential for the same complaint to be levied against his own bills, Westerman seemed to reject the possibility outright.

“These bills are aimed at making sure there is justice and fairness in the system, and it will affect people of all races. It’s not specifically targeted as justice for racial minorities, but it’s creating justice and fairness for everyone who finds themselves in these situations,” Westerman told National Review.

Appeals to the practical implications of the legislative package might not convince progressive activists, but they could help sway rank-and-file Democrats. African-American juveniles are sentenced to life without parole at ten times the rate of their white counterparts. In California, 158 of the 180 people serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles are members of racial minorities. According to the Sentencing Project, of the roughly 2,100 American juveniles serving life without parole in 2012, 47 percent had themselves been physically abused. Seventy-seven percent of the girls among the 2,100 incarcerated had been sexually abused.

For a certain portion of law-and-order conservatives — including senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), whose former seat in the House Westerman now fills — the First Step Act went too far, too fast. “If the bill is passed, thousands of federal offenders, including violent felons and sex offenders, will be released earlier than they would be under current law,” Cotton wrote in an op-ed for National Review weeks before the bill passed. It’s almost certain that like-minded Republicans will level similar criticism at Westerman’s package.

Westerman responded to this potential criticism by pointing out that the bill would bring federal law into line with Supreme Court jurisprudence, which held in Miller v. Alabama that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment. While the ruling proved somewhat controversial, precedent-conscious conservatives likely will support harmonizing federal law and Supreme Court jurisprudence. Westerman also noted that, “If you’ve got an extremely egregious offender and somebody who’s not developing” while incarcerated, the parole board is only required to consider releasing them, not to actually release them.

Could the White House be in the mood for bipartisan policymaking? “I’d like to see that kind of unity. I’d like to see the Democrats focusing on what’s good for the American people,” Donald Trump Jr. told Tucker Carlson on Monday when asked how Congress should redirect its energies after the Mueller probe. What better way for the GOP to counter the accusation leveled by top Democrats that it is a party of moral monsters than by backing this legislative package? Supporting Westerman’s proposal is not only the right thing to do; it has the added benefit of being politically savvy.

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