Congress is meeting in a “lame duck” session this week, completing work on some unfinished work. While there are partisan differences on many proposals being considered, there is one area where members of both parties agree: criminal justice reform. The bipartisan support for reform legislation may produce the most significant change in federal criminal law in years.
The bill being considered is called the First Step Act, which passed 360 to 59 in the House of Representatives on May 22. Here is how Votespotter described that legislation:
To give some federal prisoners time out of prison if they participate in vocational or rehabilitation programs, increase the amount of credits that can be used to get out of prison early for federal prisoners who have no disciplinary problems, prohibit the use of shackles for federal prisoners giving childbirth, and authorize more federal funding for prison rehabilitation programs.
While this bill passed by a large margin in the House, it has stalled in the Senate. There is bipartisan support for it in the Senate, but there is also strong opposition.
The lead senator who is working to defeat the First Step Act is Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas. However, the bill has the backing of President Trump, the national Fraternal Order of Police, the Koch brothers’ network, and many other conservative groups. The legislation also has the backing of many groups that are on the liberal side of the spectrum.
Senator Cotton has stated he thinks this legislation is dangerous because it would put more criminals on the streets. He argues that tough sentences reduced crime rates, so weakening these sentences will endanger the public. Those supporting this bill counter that many people are locked up for non-violent crimes, so it makes no sense to spend money on expensive incarceration. They argue that it is more humane and cost-effective to focus on less restrictive punishment as well as incarceration for these non-violent offenders.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has given some indications that despite Sen. Cotton’s opposition, the First Step Act may be presented to the Senate in modified form.
Should the Senate pass federal criminal justice reform? Do you support wider access to rehabilitation programs for federal prisoners? Should sentences be lightened for prisoners with no disciplinary problems?