Landmark criminal justice legislation clears Senate, 82-12

December 20, 2018

In one of the 115th U.S. Congress’s final acts—and surely one of its few bipartisan agreements—on December 17, the Senate overwhelmingly approved, by a vote of 82-12, the most significant and sweeping reform to prison sentencing laws in a generation, according to a report by ABCNews.Go.

U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee—who introduced the First Step Act along with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island)—commented, “This bill in its entirety has been endorsed by the political spectrum of America. I can’t remember any bill that has this kind of support, left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican.”

The legislation combines prison reform proposals that overwhelmingly passed in the House of Representatives earlier this year with sentencing reform provisions from the broadly bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which was authored by Durbin and Grassley and passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in February by a vote of 16-5.

Broadly, the bill allows judges more discretion in sentences offenders for nonviolent crimes (particularly, for drug-related crimes); allows more home confinement of lower-level offenders; expands prison employment programs so that inmates can earn wages; sets up a risk assessment system to determine whether a prisoner is likely to re-offend, if released; and addresses sentencing disparities (particularly, against those of color).

The bill’s approval represents a win for President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been a leading advocate for criminal justice reform within the administration, following his own father’s experience behind bars.

And according to ABCNews.Go, Trump’s embrace of the legislation is a departure from his tough-on-crime rhetoric. While the president in the past has gone so far as to call for the death penalty for drug dealers, according to the network news outlet, the president “has gotten on board with a bill that aims to loosen sentencing guidelines for some nonviolent drug offenses.”

Despite receiving bipartisan support, there were some skeptics., the news outlet said. Two Republicans, Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, unsuccessfully introduced amendments to limit which types of offenders would be eligible for early-release programs and were fiercely opposed to the legislation.

This is only the beginning, according to everyone involved. Ergo, the name, First Step Act. ““When it comes to reversing the harms done by mass incarceration, the real work is going to lie with the states and with local jurisdictions,” said Wanda Bertram, a spokeswoman for the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based think tank focused on criminal-justice reform, told MarketWatch.

“What we’re hoping is that states look to this bill as a model for state-based reform, but they also go much further, because this is a first step, but much more is needed,” she said.

Research contact: @MKhan47

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