Prisons-Sentencing Bill Called a ‘Modest Win’ for Justice

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The Senate passed the long-stalled First Step Act 87-12 Tuesday night

The First Step bill, passed Tuesday night by the Senate, is winning cautious approval from justice reformers across party lines as a significant but  “modest” win for criminal justice change.

“(It’s) large but modest, and filled with numerous exceptions to gain the backing of law enforcement organizations, whose support was critical in gaining Trump’s endorsement,” explained Reason blogger C.J. Ciaramella.

Ciaramella noted that “among some Senate Republicans, though, the bill was radical, and so it seemed somewhat miraculous when McConnell voted to retroactively reduce the sentences of an estimated 3,000 federal inmates serving time for crack cocaine offenses.”

The Senate passage came of the long-stalled bill to reform federal prisons and sentencing came after a remarkable political shift from Republicans who voted in large numbers to save money by reducing prison sentences, handing a rare bipartisan victory to President Trump, the Washington Post reports. 

It passed 87 to 12, with dozens of Republicans, including holdout Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), joining all 49 Democratics to approve legislation that even some GOP supporters fear could leave them vulnerable to charges of being soft on crime. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) stresed that Trump “wants to be tough on crime, but fair on crime.”

Trump said the measure “will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it … In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved.”

The vote came after a sustained campaign from reform advocates and groups during the week before, and the final result still seemed uncertain even late Tuesday night, reported USA Today. 

“To see it actually happen was an incredible moment,’’ said Alex Gudich, deputy director for the national advocacy group #cut50, who watched from inside the chamber as the Senate passed the bill. “We’re here at a very, very pivotal moment.”

The product of years of negotiations, the legislation represents a major pivot for the GOP, which decades ago embraced a law-and-order rallying cry and war on drugs campaign as crucial to winning votes. As crime rates have dropped and states have pursued cost-effective ways to cut the prison population, Congress has favored changes to the system, with GOP lawmakers arguing for rehabilitating some offenders rather than long-time incarceration.

The bill will reduce the “three strikes” penalty for drug felonies from life behind bars to 25 years and retroactively limit disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The latter would affect about 2,000 inmates.

It overhauls the federal prison system to help inmates earn reduced sentences.

A different version passed the House, which now must pass the latest draft before it can be sent to Trump. The bill would shave a collective 53,000 years off the sentences of federal inmates over the next ten years, says the Congressional Budget Office.

The bill also contained a provision mandating federal corrections administrators to stop putting pregnant prisoners in shackles as they give birth. A number of states have also moved to put an end to this inhumane practice.

Mark Holden of Koch Industries, a strong supporter of the bill, told he would like to see a “second step act” that would address issues such as bail reform, asset forfeiture, reform of prosecutors’ practices and ensuring the right to lawyers.

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