Bipartisan Bill Reducing Some Criminal Sentences Advances In Senate

Passage of the First Step Act would be a major victory for criminal justice reform advocates, despite opposition from conservatives and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

WASHINGTON ― The U.S. Senate voted 82-12 on Monday to advance a revised bill that would reduce prison sentences for some federal inmates, a major step for a nation that locks people up at a higher rate than any other country in the world.

The legislation is backed by a broad bipartisan coalition that includes “tough on crime” types like President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), as well as Democratic presidential hopefuls like Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The outpouring of support helped convince a wary Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to finally allow it to come to the floor for a vote this week.

The First Step Act directs the attorney general to create a new “risk and needs assessment system” that would grant prisoners time credits if they participate in qualifying activities like work, training or education. The idea is that encouraging prisoners to participate in such programs will make them more ready to return to society and less likely to wind up back in prison later on.

Federal inmates make up less than 10 percent of the 2 million Americans behind bars.

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Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has railed against the legislation, saying it would free child molesters and murderous carjackers who would then commit more crimes and imperil the re-election of every senator who votes for it.

The original bill excluded several types of offenders from the new anti-recidivism program, and an updated version released last week excluded several more categories, including felons who’d threatened to murder a senator or government official.

But Cotton has mocked efforts to revise what he called a “magical unicorn bill” to address his concerns. Last week, he sought to draw a line from the reduction of draconian drug sentencing guidelines for nonviolent felons to Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison for crimes that included arranging payments during the 2016 presidential election to silence women who claimed they had affairs with Trump.

“I’m shocked the Democrats are about to vote to cut Michael Cohen’s sentence up to a third,” Cotton told reporters with a hint of a smile on his face.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), another opponent of the bill, introduced several amendments alongside Cotton that would exclude nine more classes of offenders from the new anti-recidivism program, require the Bureau of Prisons to notify victims of the release date for the person in custody associated with their offense, and require the bureau to the track rearrest data for each prisoner.

Kennedy said in a statement he hoped the amendments would address major shortfalls in the legislation, which he called “a violation of American public safety” and a “prisoner release bill.”

The Sentencing Group, a justice reform advocacy organization, however, said the amendments are designed to derail the legislation and weaken its rehabilitation incentive program.

“Mandating notification to victims could trigger a traumatic experience for a victim who has already moved on,” Marc Mauer, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

It’s unclear whether the new provisions will prompt Democratic senators to oppose the measure if they are adopted ahead of a vote on final passage, which is expected later this week.

Democrats view the legislation as imperfect, but a necessary step to reform after decades of mandatory minimums and three-strike laws helped explode the country’s prison population. Bill sponsor Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called the measure “a once in a political lifetime aligning of the stars,” citing support from police unions and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU joined a broad coalition of groups led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights that opposed a previous version of the legislation, chiefly because the risk assessment system gave too much discretion to the federal government to decide who is eligible. Doing so risks “embedding deep racial and class bias into decisions that heavily impact the lives and futures of federal prisoners and their families,” the groups wrote.

But the ACLU endorsed the Senate bill in November after lawmakers added changes to some criminal sentences ― including a provision that would allow inmates currently serving time for crack-cocaine offenses to petition courts for release. One of the worst “tough on crime” laws of the 1980s subjected crack offenses to much longer sentences than regular cocaine crimes. The law disproportionately affected African Americans. Congress reduced the disparity in 2010, but didn’t make the change retroactive.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a sponsor of the House version of the reform bill, called it “a significant step toward redemption for thousands of non-violent drug offenders harshly treated by unjust crack-cocaine laws.”

On Monday, the Leadership Conference endorsed the latest version of the First Step Act, praising its changes to mandatory minimum sentences and the way inmates can earn “good time” credit. But the group’s president, Vanita Gupta, said the bill really should be considered a first step.

“Several sentencing provisions don’t apply to individuals currently incarcerated, and the bill excludes too many people from earning time credits, allows private prison companies to profit, fails to include parole for juveniles, and expands the use of electronic monitoring,” Gupta said.

This story has been updated with the vote count.

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