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‘First Step Act’ Prison Reform Bill Faces Challenges in Senate

Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: November 26, 2018
Tillis's victory gave Republicans 49 seats in the Senate. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

A major bipartisan prison reform bill that passed the House this May is running out of time to be voted upon by the U.S. Senate, as politicians debate its pros and cons.

If passed, the “First Step Act,” as the proposed reform is called, would reduce penalties for certain non-violent repeat drug offenders based on a risk ranking and provide US$50 million toward “recidivism reduction programs” and “productive activities” to help inmates learn life skills and prepare them for lives free of crime.

Based on the reform, warrens in federal prisons would form partnerships with nonprofits, religious organizations, colleges, and companies. These could then be hired or invited as volunteers to help administer the programs.

In exchange for taking part in the programs, prisoners would earn some privileges via a points system — including lesser forms of incarceration such as home confinement or community supervision at the end of their terms.

Those sentenced for murder, terrorism, sex offenses, and other serious felonies would be ineligible to participate in the credit system.

More than 2.1 million people are incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons. While that number is lower than the 2.3 million a decade ago, it is still the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties have praised the bill.

“Fixing our broken criminal justice system will take an all-hands-on deck effort from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).(Image: Fort Greene Focus via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

‘Fixing our broken criminal justice system will take an all-hands-on deck effort from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle,’ said Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). (Image: Fort Greene Focus via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

“The mass incarceration epidemic is 50 years in the making, fixing our broken criminal justice system will take an all-hands-on deck effort from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).

Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who sponsored the bill, said in a statement: “The bipartisan support that is sending the FIRST STEP Act to the House floor reflects the resolve that I’ve seen among my colleagues to make positive strides toward restorative justice today and to use that progress to build a bridge toward additional reforms in the days ahead.”

The bill would also give corrections officers more options in storing their firearms beyond prison perimeters, and put more restrictions on when constraints can be put on prisoners who are pregnant.

Sentencing reform

While the bill passed the House of Representatives by 360 to 59, a Senate vote on the Act has been delayed because of disagreements regarding its role in sentencing reform. Senators from both major parties criticized the lack of clarity surrounding the issue.

There are concerns that without proper legislation on mandatory sentencing, law enforcement officers and the general public could be placed at greater risk if dangerous convicts have their sentences reduced due to the Act.

“Under no circumstances should Congress cut mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes or give judges more discretion to reduce those sentences,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published this August. “That foolish approach is not criminal-justice reform — it’s a jailbreak.”

In May, a letter signed by five Democrat senators said: “We have supported prison-reform legislation with some of the deficiencies outlined above as part of a broader criminal justice reform legislation that includes critical reforms to federal sentencing laws.”

“However, we are unwilling to support a flawed prison reform legislation that does not include sentencing reform,” the letter read.

Running out of time

According to the White House and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who spoke at a press briefing on Nov. 14, various versions of the revised bill are being floated.

There isn’t much time for a vote before the current work session of Congress ends in mid-December. McConnell said that it’s unlikely for the bill to get through the Senate.

(Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell. (Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

The First Step Act represents the first major bipartisan bill put forth by the Trump administration.

On Nov. 23, President Donald Trump called upon Congress to pass the Act, calling it a “real chance to do something so badly needed in our country” in a Nov. 23 tweet.

The president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is a White House senior adviser and had a hand in getting the bill through the House, said on CNN that “there was really a lot of bipartisan support for this issue in the sense that a lot of the conservative states have been leaders on this issue, saying that the prisons have become too full, we’re spending too much money on warehousing people, [and] we should be figuring out how to improve people.”

McConnell, who decides which bills go to the Senate floor, said that he would have to see how the Act “stacks up” against other priorities, including bills to provide more government funding and a farming act. If the revised First Step Act passes the Senate, it will have to gain re-approval from the House.

“The vast majority of federal prisoners will someday be released from prison and it is important to give them tools to become more productive citizens so that they don’t return to a life of crime,” said House judiciary committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).

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