WASHINGTON ― The Senate on Tuesday passed a package of overdue reforms that could put a dent in the U.S. prison population, currently the largest in the world.
While it does not go as far as proponents of criminal justice reform would like, the bill is the most sweeping prison reform agreement that Congress has passed in decades.
The legislation, titled the First Step Act, would reduce prison sentences for some federal inmates by creating a new assessment program that would grant earlier release to inmates whom federal prison officials deem unlikely to commit future crimes. It would also allow inmates currently serving time for crack-cocaine offenses to petition courts for an earlier release.
The legislation passed by an 87-12 vote Tuesday evening despite vocal opposition from a group of conservatives who warned it would release violent felons into the streets to commit more crimes and imperil the re-election of every senator who votes for it.
A broad, bipartisan coalition supported the bill, however, including “tough on crime” politicians like President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), as well as progressives like Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Even advocacy groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum like the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and FreedomWorks on the right offered their endorsement.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had legislation before the U.S. Senate where you’ve put together such a diverse group of people,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) remarked on the floor ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
“How do you eat 1,000 marshmallows? One at a time. How do you pass a bill? One day at a time,” he added, marveling at the unusual mix of supporters he helped marshal behind the legislation.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had legislation before the U.S. Senate where you’ve put together such a diverse group of people.”
Still, proponents of the effort faced an uphill climb in convincing a recalcitrant Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to allow it to come to the floor for a vote. The Kentucky Republican finally assented earlier this month after public and private pressure from the White House and a majority of his caucus.
Supporters of the bill also had to defeat several controversial amendments authored by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and John Kennedy (R-La.) that threatened to sink the bill. The provisions, which were successfully voted down on Tuesday, would have scaled back the legislation by excluding more offenders from participating in the bill’s earned-time credit program and requiring the Bureau of Prisons to notify victims when a prisoner is released early.
Kennedy said the provisions were necessary to stem what he saw as “a violation of American public safety” that would lead to the mass release of felons. Grassley, however, called the measures “heavy-handed” and warned they would simply retraumatize victims by forcing them to be notified of a prisoner’s release.
The underlying bill already excluded dozens of categories of offenders from earning time credits under the new system, a list that was broadened under a revised version of the legislation released last week. Still, detractors like Cotton said the bill would allow too many types of violent offenders could get out of prison before their sentences are up.
The legislation only addresses the federal prison system. Of the 2 million Americans behind bars in 2016, fewer than 200,000 were serving time in federal prison, according to the most recent data. The number of inmates has declined in recent years after skyrocketing since the 1980s.
Reform-minded advocacy groups like the ACLU and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights initially opposed the legislation, a version of which passed the House of Representatives earlier this year, because it gave prison officials too much discretion to decide which inmates deserve eligibility for pre-release custody, which can mean home confinement or placement in a halfway house.
But the Senate version of the bill won those groups over by adding several provisions reducing mandatory minimum sentences. One key addition would allow inmates serving time for a crack-cocaine offense to ask courts to give them the benefit of a 2010 law that reduced the huge imbalance between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, a disparity that disproportionately affected African-Americans. The First Step Act would make some 2,000 current federal inmates eligible for release by making the 2010 change retroactive.
“It is a compromise of a compromise, and we ultimately need to make far greater reforms if we are to right the wrongs that exist in our criminal justice system.”
Some Democrats also said the package of reforms didn’t go as far as they would have liked. But the entire Senate Democratic Caucus endorsed it nevertheless after changes were made to include the sentencing reforms ― reforms Democrats viewed as necessary after decades of mandatory minimums and three-strike laws helped explode the country’s prison population.
“It is a compromise of a compromise, and we ultimately need to make far greater reforms if we are to right the wrongs that exist in our criminal justice system,” Harris, a likely 2020 presidential contender, said in a statement earlier this week.
Advocacy groups, meanwhile, celebrated the vote as a key victory for criminal justice reform.
“Tom Cotton’s scare tactics were a resounding failure,” Jessica Jackson Sloan, National Director of #cut50, said in a statement. “Tonight, we stand as neither Republican or Democrats but as a people seeking to take the first step of many to criminal justice reform.”
House leaders have signaled they would pass the Senate bill and send it to the president’s desk for a signature before the end of the month.