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Kamala Harris Endorses White House–Backed Criminal-Justice Reform Bill

Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., addresses Capitol Hill reporters in Washington, D.C., November 27, 2018. (Leah Millis/REUTERS)

Senator Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) endorsed a bipartisan criminal-justice reform package on Monday, days after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the legislation will receive a vote in the Senate before the end of the year.

The FIRST STEP Act, which President Trump has also endorsed, seeks to reduce recidivism and mass incarceration by expanding the pool of inmates eligible for early release and increasing judicial autonomy in determining sentences.

“For years, we’ve been offered a false choice on criminal justice policy. It’s a choice that suggests that we are either ‘soft’ on crime or ‘tough’ on crime instead of asking: ‘Are we smart on crime?’ Americans deserve a criminal justice system that is both fair and smart. By passing the FIRST STEP Act, we can make our criminal justice system smarter,” Harris said in a Monday statement.

Harris and a number of her fellow progressives have proven hesitant to endorse the bill on the grounds that it’s a “half-measure” that does not adequately address racial disparities in the criminal-justice system.

After resisting bipartisan pressure to bring the package to the floor for weeks, following the Trump’s endorsement, McConnell announced Tuesday that the Senate would vote on the package before the end of the year, even if doing so meant he and his colleagues would have to work through the holidays.

“At the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation that has been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the recently revised criminal justice bill this month. I intend to turn to the new text as early as the end of this week. So as a result of this additional legislative business, members should now be prepared to work between Christmas and New Year’s, if necessary, in order to complete our work,” McConnell said in his speech.

The legislation, which was championed by White House adviser Jared Kushner, has exposed a deep divide within the Republican party as critics of the bill, led by Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), have argued it would facilitate the early release of violent offenders and major opioid traffickers. The bill’s proponents, led by Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah), have cast Cotton’s criticisms as misguided and overly deferential to the status quo.

Cotton and Senator John Kennedy (R., La.) recently introduced an amendment to the bill that would exclude violent offenders and sex offenders from the “good time” credit program, among other modifications.

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