In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate on Tuesday approved a major prison and sentencing reform bill, the First Step Act (S.3649) on a vote of 87-12. The bill now goes back to the House, which is expected to pass it easily, and then to the desk of President Trump, who has vowed to sign it.
Introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), the bill added significant sentencing reform provisions to a prison reform bill passed earlier by the House.
“The First Step Act will help keep our streets safe and it offers a fresh start to those who’ve put in the work to get right with the law while paying their debt to society,” Grassley said on the Senate floor after the vote. “It also addresses unfairness in prison sentencing and revises policies that have led to overcrowded prisons and ballooning taxpayer expenses.”
“I think we showed something which most American people wouldn’t have believed—that a bipartisan group of senators from across the political spectrum could tackle one of the toughest political issues of our day, assemble an array of support—left, right, and center—from members of the Senate as well as organizations devoted to law enforcement as well as civil rights, and at the end of it have something we all felt was a fair product to send over to the House, which I hope will act on this very quickly,” Durbin said. “It is, however, the first step. We’ve got to start thinking about the second step. And we need the help of all of our colleagues when shaping that.”
In addition to the prison reform language, the bill’s key sentencing provisions include:
Retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people;
Expansion of the “safety valve” allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences;
Reform of the “three strikes” law, reducing the “second strike” mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the “third strike” mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years;
Eliminate “stacking” for firearm offenses, meaning that prosecutors cannot add sentencing enhancements to individuals who may possess a firearm while committing their first federal offense.
“Passing these reforms has been a team effort years in the making,” Grassley continued. “It couldn’t have been done without the stalwart commitment by a somewhat unlikely cadre of colleagues and advocates. We’ve had to compromise to make this possible, to seek to understand the other’s point of view. In doing so, I think we made the bill better. And we accomplished something of historic significance that will reduce crime, make our system more just, and improve lives for generations to come.”
The First Step Act was backed by a number of law enforcement groups, including the nation’s largest police group, as well as 172 former federal prosecutors and sheriffs from 34 states across the country. The National Governors Association, which represents the governors of all 50 states, praised the bill. A broad coalition of conservative and progressive groups along with a host of business leaders and faith-based organizations also support the First Step Act.
For progressives and drug reformers, though, the bill is indeed only a first step. It does nothing, for example, to address the plight of people sentenced to life in prison for drug offenses, and that leaves them offering only qualified praise.
“The Senate’s version of the legislation, while far from perfect, includes crucial sentencing reforms that safely reduce the footprint of the federal criminal justice system from the front end,” said Ed Chung, vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress.
“This is a bittersweet moment,” said Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “The bill represents progress and we should celebrate the release of thousands of people serving disproportionately long sentences, but at the same time, the bill leaves far too many people behind. It’s a tough compromise for us and we must keep fighting for much deeper systemic changes.”
It is, after all, just a first step.
This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
The Drug Policy Alliance is a financial supporter of Drug Reporter.
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