Law & the Courts

Senate Passes Bipartisan Criminal-Justice-Reform Bill

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The Senate on Tuesday passed the most significant criminal-justice-reform package in recent decades by an overwhelming and bipartisan margin.

The FIRST STEP Act, which passed the Senate 87-12, aims to reduce mass incarceration and high recidivism rates by expanding the pool of inmates eligible to participate in early-release programs and increasing judicial discretion with respect to sentencing.

Members of the House on both sides of the aisle have vowed to pass the legislative package this week and President Trump has publicly endorsed and pledged to sign it.

The legislation received endorsements from a wide array of political advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Koch-backed Right on Crime, and lawmakers from across the political spectrum.

Despite benefitting from broad bipartisan support, the legislation brought the intra-Republican divide over criminal justice into sharp relief, as hardliners led by senator Tom Cotton (Ark.) accused their fellow Republicans of jeopardizing the public safety by reducing the sentences of violent criminals and major drug traffickers.

Cotton and senator John Kennedy (R., La.) proposed a series of amendments to the bill that reduced the population of inmates eligible for early release, among other amendments, all of which were voted down by a narrow margin Tuesday night.

Under the new legislation, thousands of inmates will be newly eligible to receive so-called “good time” credits, which reward well-behaved inmates by ensuring that Bureau of Prisons officials factor in their good conduct when determining whether they will be released on parole.

In a severe statement released following the bill’s passage, Cotton invoked the potential early release of child molesters to criticize the bill’s proponents.

“While the bill has marginally improved from earlier versions, I’m disappointed my amendments to exclude child molesters from early release, and to protect victims’ rights were not adopted. I also remain concerned that reducing sentences for drug traffickers and violent felons is a threat to public safety,” Cotton said.

In an effort to reduce sentences, the bill also addresses the so-called stacking mechanism, which mandates additional charges when an individual commits a felony while in possession of a firearm. If the bill is passed by the House, the stacking mechanism will only be enforced against offenders who have been previously convicted of felonies. The legislation also reduces the mandatory minimum sentence under the “three strikes” law from life to 25 years.

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