On December 18, by an unexpectedly large 87-12 margin, the Senate passed the “First Step” criminal justice reform bill, setting the stage for final action (House approval of the Senate’s changes and presidential signature). Two days later, the House of Representatives cleared the Senate-passed bill, which President Trump has pledged, by an overwhelming 358-36 margin. These outsized and unusually bipartisan victories had been in doubt just several weeks ago.
When considered by the House earlier this year, the “First Step Act” — short for “Formerly Incarcerated Re-enter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person” Act — required individualized risk assessments for new inmates entering federal prison, and encouraged recidivism-reducing education and other programs by awarding participating inmates credits which could reduce time to be served or lower the time before release to home confinement, halfway houses or other similar community-based alternatives (sponsors stressed that only non-violent or low-level offenders would be eligible for such benefits).
Although making numerous other reforms in federal prisons (such as banning shackling of pregnant inmates and improving feminine hygiene supplies), the original House bill didn’t reduce the front-end length of federal prison sentences. Many of the floor votes cast against the House bill’s passage came from Democrats unhappy the bill lacked sentencing reforms.
After protracted discussion, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) added sentencing reductions to the Senate version of the House bill provision: setting 25 years rather than life as the mandatory minimum “three strikes” penalty for some drug offenders with three convictions, allowing judges to reduce some drug sentences below federal guidelines, letting well-behaved prisoners reduce their sentences by one week for each year served, and permitting about 2,600 federal inmates sentenced for crack before August 2010 to petition retroactively for reduced penalties under the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine.
Grassley had to overcome reluctance by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who cited a tight schedule and disagreement among Republican senators, to scheduling a floor vote on bill. But when backers claimed between 70 and 80 Senate votes, and President Trump called for a vote, one was scheduled.
Senate opponents, led by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and John Kennedy (R-LA), unsuccessfully fought the bill with several floor amendments, but couldn’t muster more than 37 votes for any of them.
One amendment would have added a dozen or so offenses to those making inmates ineligible for alternative sentences or early release (the bill’s backers countered the most serious crimes were already included, and criticized a catch-all exclusion the opponents proposed). Another would have required notice to crime victims or their families before an inmate would benefit from a sentence reduction; bill backers noted such notification is already available, but about 10% of victims shun it. A third amendment from opponents would have required quarterly anonymized reports from the Bureau of Prisons listing the crimes for which inmates whose sentences were reduced had originally been convicted, and an updated list of crimes for which they were subsequently found guilty.
The 12 votes against final Senate passage all came from conservative Republicans; every Democrat in the chamber backed the measure.
Christopher Zoukis, author of Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts, is the Marketing Director of Brandon Sample PLC. He can be found online at https://sentencing.net, https://compassionaterelease.com, and https://clemency.com.