The future of “deradicalization” programs in the U.S. is at a pivotal juncture this week, when a federal judge in Minnesota will decide the appropriate sentence for nine convicted Islamic State sympathizers.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, a senior federal judge in Minneapolis, took an unprecedented step before the sentencings. He asked a deradicalization expert from Germany to come to the U.S., interview six of the nine defendants, all Somali-Americans in their 20s, and determine whether they would be candidates for a reduced sentence.
If Judge Davis decides to send any of the defendants into a deradicalization program instead of prison, it could set the model for other federal officials grappling with how the legal system should treat young people with a desire to join Islamic State. It also would raise uncertainties about the logistics of such a program, including who would fund it or be responsible for any failures.
Since early 2014, more than 100 Americans have been arrested on charges related to Islamic State. These defendants are mostly U.S. citizens in their early 20s and often convicted of crimes that carry a maximum of decades in prison, meaning they will be released back to society as middle-aged adults.
Law-enforcement officials are recognizing that the previous solution of a lengthy prison sentence isn’t right for everyone. Given their youth, many Islamic State sympathizers still have time for rehabilitation, defense lawyers say, but federal prisons lack counseling geared specifically at terrorism disengagement.
The nine men facing sentencing next week were accused of supporting Islamic State to varying degrees. Many of them bought plane tickets to Turkey with Syria as the ultimate destination, and were arrested and detained by law enforcement before they could board planes. Some were convicted by a jury, while others pleaded guilty and testified against their friends at trial in hopes of a more lenient sentence.
Since there is no precedent for this, Judge Davis would have wide latitude to set the parameters of any deradicalization program. He also could give guideline prison sentences to every defendant. Any sentence he gives could be overturned by an appeals court.