Posted by 19 December 2018
Something rare happened in the U.S. Senate last night – major legislation advances with overwhelming bipartisan support. While Democrats and Republicans disagree on many things, it appears that overhauling the federal criminal justice system is not one of them.
The First Step Act passed by a vote of 87-12. It had broad support across the political spectrum, with liberal groups focused on justice reform allying themselves with libertarians like the Koch brothers and conservative religious groups to support it. President Donald Trump also urged Congress to pass it.
Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) led the opposition to the bill. He said that it would release potentially violent criminals from federal custody. He argued that it was a return to the “soft on crime” policies of the past. Sen. Cotton and other senators who shared his concerns offered a series of amendments that would made the bill tougher on federal inmates, but these amendments failed to pass.
Among other things, this bill would:
- Prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates while giving birth
- Apply changes that removed the disparities between penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine retroactively
- Require that prisoners be incarcerated within 500 miles of their families
- Provide incentives for prisoners to undertake job training and rehabilitation programs
- Reduce the “three strikes and you’re out” penalty for drug trafficking to 25 years (instead of life)
The House of Representatives passed a different version of this legislation earlier this year by a vote of 360-59. However, that body is expected to endorse the Senate’s version and pass it later this week. If it does so, the bill will head to President Trump for his signature.
Do you support reform of the federal criminal justice system? Should pregnant prisoners be shackled during birth? Should inmates be housed within 500 miles of their families? Do you agree with inmates being released from prison early if they complete job training programs?