Prison reform bill advances after bipartisan deal
Senators linked arms and voted Monday to advance a new bill combining sentencing and prison reforms, setting up final passage later this week and creating the groundwork for a major bipartisan compromise.
President Trump had urged GOP Senate leaders to drop their longstanding objections and allow the bipartisan bill to reach the floor, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell finally agreed, after the bill was changed a final time to win over some additional conservatives.
With those changes in hand, the measure cleared a potential filibuster on a 82-12 vote, far more than the 60 votes needed.
The Senate will now begin debating amendments, and some conservatives hope to temper the sentencing changes they fear will lead to bad criminals being freed from prison time.
But Monday’s vote signals there’s a critical mass behind the bill, making passage likely.
“The product of years of negotiating and listening to each other is a bill that will reduce crime, strengthen faith in our justice system, support law enforcement, and give thousands of people a better shot at living a good life,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Dubbed the First Step Act, the legislation would expand prison programs designed to reduce recidivism and allow some prisoners to earn credits toward early release by taking part in those programs. The bill also reduces some maximum mandatory sentences, such as ending the three-strikes life in prison penalty and replacing it with a 25-year maximum.
Mr. Grassley and Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, led negotiations on key changes that won over some law-enforcement critics and conservatives last week.
Among them were preventing prisoners with firearms offenses or anyone trafficking fentanyl from earning credits toward early release, and specifying that only prisoners who ranked as lower safety risks could be given early supervised release.
That earned the support of lawmakers such as Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican.
Also backing the bill were liberals such as Sen. Kamala D. Harris, who said she was disappointed the measure didn’t go further, but said it was at least a step toward what she wanted to see.
“It is a compromise of a compromise, and we ultimately need to make far greater reforms if we are to right the wrongs that exist in our criminal justice system,” she said.
She complained that some of the sentencing reforms only apply to future convictions, and said she wanted to see more credits toward early release, and less ankle monitoring of those who are released.
The 12 “no” votes all came from Republicans.
But most of the party’s leaders, including Mr. McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn, his top lieutenant, voted to advance the bill. Their support could dip later this week as the conservatives’ amendments face expected defeats.
If the bill does pass, it will go back to the House for a final OK.
That would be a major accomplishment for Mr. Trump, who has been consistent in recent months in pressuring his party’s leaders to take up the bill.