Law & the Courts

McConnell: Senate Will Vote on Criminal-Justice Bill This Month

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the Senate will vote in the coming weeks on the sharply contested criminal-justice-reform legislation that has divided congressional Republicans since receiving an endorsement from the White House in mid November.

During a floor speech Tuesday morning, McConnell told his colleagues to “be prepared to work between Christmas and New Year’s” in order to ensure the bill receives a vote, the Washington Post first reported.

The bill, called the First Step Act — a package of sweeping reforms designed to reduce incarceration rates and recidivism within the federal criminal-justice system — was drafted by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Despite receiving broad bipartisan support and the staunch backing of White House adviser Jared Kushner, the bill has exposed a deep rift within the Republican caucus, as law-and-order hardliners led by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas have argued that it will lead to a surge in crime and accused Republican proponents of attempting to rush it through Congress.

The intra-party debate hinges on whether potentially violent criminals and those who have committed particularly egregious drug offenses, such as the trafficking of large amounts of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, will be able to secure early release.

Cotton and his allies have argued that under the new legislation those inmates will be eligible to receive “good time” credits, which are granted to well-behaved inmates and are factored in by the Bureau of Prisons in determining when an inmate should be granted parole.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a leading proponent of the legislation, has criticized Cotton and his contingent of detractors for misrepresenting the bill’s implications. Lee and fellow proponents of the bill have emphasized the long list of violent offenders who will not be eligible receive the good-time credits and pointed out that, while the credits are a factor in determining which prisoners are granted early release, Bureau of Prison officials will still have autonomy to make the final call on any given prisoner.

“Nothing in The First Step Act automatically grants inmates with time credits early release. Inmates can accrue credits if and only if the BOP deems them to be a low or minimal risk of recidivism,” Lee’s spokesman Conn Carroll said in a statement provided to National Review.

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