Two key criminal justice reform bills pass Congress

December proved to be a very good month for criminal justice reform in the United States.

Congress passed two pieces of legislation that the American Bar Association supported and lobbied for — the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and the First Step Act. President Donald Trump signed both into law Friday, Dec. 21, marking the most significant legislative progress towards criminal justice system reform in a generation. Both bills passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

The JJDPA had not been reauthorized in 16 years. It strengthens protections for juveniles by not allowing detention of youths for status offenses like alcohol possession, curfew violation, or truancy— acts that would not be a crime if committed by an adult.  It also removes juvenile offenders from adult jails and prisons, with limited exceptions, attempts to address the racial disparity in the juvenile system and provides funds to improve the process.

“It is our duty as lawyers to protect the vulnerable in our criminal justice system,” ABA President Bob Carlson said. “This bill provides the tools to defend one of the most at-risk groups in our system: juveniles.”

The First Step Act will ease mandatory minimum sentences by allowing judges to give lighter sentences in some cases and relaxing a “three strikes” law from life imprisonment to 25 years. The law expands programs that allow inmates to reduce their time in prison through good behavior and vocational training. Also included are recidivism-reducing programs, “compassionate release” for the elderly and terminally ill, and the elimination of sentences of life without parole and solitary confinement for juveniles. The legislation makes retroactive sentencing reforms enacted in 2010 that bring crack cocaine sentences more in line with powder cocaine sentences.

The First Step Act and the JJDPA reauthorization were priorities for the ABA.

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