Senate finally offers criminal reform, puts kid prisoners on the agenda


The Senate has reached a bipartisan compromise on major criminal justice reform legislation, aimed at getting more well-behaved, non-violent offenders out of jail sooner, that would also address at least one grownup punishment regularly used on kids in prison.

The bill, which was announced this morning, will seek to reduce the use of solitary confinement for juveniles on a federal level for the first time, according to Politico. It would also reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and allow prisoners to earn time off of their sentences, while raising mandatory minimums for certain violent crimes like terrorism and domestic abuse across state lines.

A disparate crew of politicians including Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y), Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Tim Scott (R- S.C.), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) agreed to the package.

On Wednesday, some of the top voices in criminal justice reform gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss how kids are treated in the penal system — in particular, how solitary confinement is used for juveniles, despite potential hazards to the children’s mental well-being. The event was part of a series of events Fusion is organizing to bring awareness to juvenile justice issues, including ending the use of cell isolation for kids.

During that gathering, Booker alluded to the upcoming bill without giving many details. He said, however, that he had just shaken hands with other senators involved in the negotiations that morning.

“It is good progress in the right direction,” said Booker. “I have been involved in these negotiations. My bar is high, and there’s enough in here, even related to kids, if the bill stays how it is, that will get my full-throated support.”

The bill would allow juveniles serving life sentences to seek parole after serving 20 years and for non-violent juvenile offenders to to seal or expunge their records in certain circumstances.

However, these provisions may be more mood music than policy where kid prisoners are concerned. According to a summary of bill provisions on Sen. Chuck Grassley’s website, the limits on solitary confinement and further provisions on minors would pertain only to juveniles in federal prisons or courts–not those subject to punishment in state institutions.

Booker has introduced separate legislation that would ban the use of solitary confinement for minors and raise the minimum age to charge a juvenile in adult court to 18 nationally; 11 states lack such limits on juvenile charges.