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US Senate Passes Criminal Justice Reform

FILE - The U.S. Capitol building at night
FILE - The U.S. Capitol building at night

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved legislation to decrease America’s substantial prison population by lowering some mandatory federal sentences, giving inmates added opportunities to earn reductions in jail time, and encouraging prisoners to better themselves so they are less likely to return to crime upon release.

Passing 87-12, the First Step Act was hailed by proponents as a long-overdue retooling of the federal criminal justice system, an effort that drew resounding support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers as well as President Donald Trump.

“Congratulations to the Senate on the bipartisan passing of a historic Criminal Justice Reform Bill,” Trump tweeted shortly after the vote. “I look forward to signing this into law!”

“The bill makes smart changes to our criminal justice system in ways that will make it fairer, more humane, and more just,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said.

“This legislation is proof that we can be tough on crime and more compassionate to those who deserve a second chance,” Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker said in a statement.

The bill retroactively ends the discrepancy in federal sentences for drug offenses involving crack and the powder form of cocaine, which would reduce jail time for thousands of prisoners convicted of crack offenses.

The legislation also reduces some mandatory sentences, gives federal judges more flexibility to make exceptions to mandatory prison terms, and allow inmates to earn greater sentence reductions through good behavior and vocational training.

Proponents said the bill aims to correct a failed 1980s-era attempt to deter illegal drug use that established long mandatory prison sentences for drug convictions

“Since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by over 700 percent,” Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin said. “Today, the United States of America holds more prisoners by far than any country in the world, more than Russia or China.”

Durbin added the existing law has unfairly targeted people of color, saying, “The majority of illegal drug users and dealers in America are white. But three-quarters of the people serving time in prison for drug offenses are African-American or Latino.”

The House of Representatives passed a similar version of the bill earlier this year. This week, the Senate raced to complete work on the legislation before the chamber adjourns for the Christmas holiday.

The First Step Act had robust but not universal Senate support in its current form. A group of Republicans argued it would open the door to lenient or vastly reduced sentences for violent offenders, and that it cedes too much authority to prison administrators.

FILE - Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., responds to a reporter's question on Capitol Hill, Oct. 3, 2018 in Washington.
FILE - Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., responds to a reporter's question on Capitol Hill, Oct. 3, 2018 in Washington.

“Justice exists when people receive what they deserve. Justice exists when a rapist receives a penalty proportionate to his crime,” Louisiana Republican John Kennedy said. “This bill says (current) sentences are unjust, so we are going to give the wardens, the director of the Bureau of Prisons that authority to let out whomever he or she wants to.”

Kennedy added, “I’m not going to vote to pass the buck to the bureaucracy and trust them to do the right thing.”

Kennedy and other opponents of the bill offered amendments specifying that violent offenders will be excluded from sentence reductions. All were defeated.

“The legislation is certainly not a get-out-of-jail-free card for violent criminals or sex offenders,” Schumer said, explaining his opposition to the amendments.

America’s prison population exceeds 2 million people, and incarceration consumes vast resources within the nation’s justice system. Once implemented, the First Step Act would have a modest impact on incarceration numbers, as the bill only applies to federal inmates, who account for less than 10 percent of the national total. Other initiatives seek to achieve similar results at the state level.

A wide array of law enforcement organizations support the bill, as do both right-leaning and left-leaning advocacy groups.

“American families will be stronger and our communities will be safer,” Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee said. “This is a huge win for America and President Trump.”