The Slatest

Bipartisan Senate Vote Moves Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Bill One Step Closer to Law

A rally calling for criminal justice reform outside the U.S. Capitol July 10, 2018 in Washington, DC.
A rally calling for criminal justice reform outside the U.S. Capitol July 10, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Senate, on Tuesday, voted in favor of sweeping criminal justice reform aimed at lowering the number of people in America’s prisons and reducing recidivism. The 87-to-12 bipartisan vote to advance the First Step Act included every Democrat and all but 12 Republicans, offering a comprehensive legislative advancement for an unlikely coalition of supporters from across the political spectrum, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Koch brothers and the American Conservative Union. The bill, which aims to reduce the human and financial cost of mass incarceration, now needs to be approved by the House, which voted for a different version of the legislation earlier this year. House leaders have pledged to get this bill passed this week and President Trump has committed to signing it.

“Once signed into law, thousands of inmates will be eligible for immediate sentencing reductions and expanded early-release programs,” the New York Times reports. “Going forward, the effect will grow as thousands of new offenders receive reduced sentences and enter a changed prison system.” More from the Times:

In all, it includes four changes to federal sentencing laws. One would shorten mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses, including lowering the mandatory “three strikes” penalty from life in prison to 25 years. Another would provide judges greater liberty to use so-called safety valves to go around mandatory minimums in some cases. The bill would also clarify that the so-called stacking mechanism making it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense, should apply only to individuals who have previously been convicted. Finally, the bill would allow offenders sentenced before a 2010 reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to petition for their cases to be re-evaluated. The provision could alter the sentences of several thousand drug offenders serving lengthy sentences for crack-cocaine offenses.

The vote is the latest twist in the five-year effort to enact reform the nation’s prisons that began during the Obama administration with the support of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Speaker Paul Ryan. Sen. Mitch McConnell, as the majority leader, however, refused to allow a vote on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act leading up to the 2016 election. Over the past year, Senate Republicans joined White House adviser Jared Kushner in reviving the effort with President Trump’s endorsement. “The product of years of negotiations, the legislation represents a major pivot for the GOP, which decades ago embraced a law-and-order rallying cry and war on drugs campaign as crucial to winning votes,” the Washington Post notes. “But as crime rates have dropped and states have pursued cost-effective ways to cut the prison population, Congress has favored changes to the system, with GOP lawmakers arguing for rehabilitating some offenders rather than long-time incarceration.”