Just the Facts

Five Facts on Criminal Justice Reform

By Emma Petasis
November 20, 2018 | Blog

Over the past several months both the House and the Senate have been working to overhaul our country’s criminal justice laws with a comprehensive bill known as the First Step Act.  While the bill has broad bipartisan support and the endorsement of President Trump, it remains to be seen whether Congress will be able to get the bill to the president’sdesk before the end of the year. Here are five facts on criminal justice reform:

In May, the House passed its version of the First Step Act with broad bipartisan support

The bill, which was authored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), sailed through the House with a vote of 360-59.  The legislation would provide $50 million annually to the Bureau of Prisons for the next five years, which would go towards funding prison programs such as education, drug treatment, and job skills training.  The bill would also allow inmates who complete certain programs to earn credits that would allow them to serve the remaining days of their sentences in halfway houses or under house arrest.  In addition, the bill would require inmates to be housed within 500 miles of their families when possible and would prohibit the shackling of female pregnant inmates.

A bipartisan group of senators agreed to the First Step Act in principle after adding several amendments

The First Step Act faced a much more difficult path upon reaching the Senate. However a bipartisan agreement over the summer gave advocates of criminal justice reform new hope.  Spearheaded by Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Judiciary committee member Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), members from across the aisle were able to agree on four provisions all aimed at reducing prison time and sentencing requirements for nonviolent drug offenders.  However, these amendments have drawn the ire of several senators, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who called this approach to justice reform “foolish” and claimed that “it would undercut president Trump’s campaign promise to restore law and order.”

On November 14, President Trump announced his support for the First Step Act

In an effort to push the First Step Act through the Senate, President Trump provided his public endorsement for the bill.  In a highly publicized statement, the president said that he “would be waiting with a pen,” and that the bill included “reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off the streets.”  Both Sens. Durbin and Grassley voiced their appreciation for the president’s endorsement, stating: “We are grateful for the White House’s ongoing engagement to make these long-overdue reforms a reality.”

Several law enforcement groups have also endorsed the bill

President Trump had made it clear to aides that he wanted the backing of law enforcement groups if he was to go public with his endorsement.  He got his wish when the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the world’s largest group of sworn law enforcement officials, provided their endorsement, stating, “Criminal justice reform has been on the agenda for the last two administrations, but it seems like President Trump is going to be able to get it done.”  In addition, the president also received support  from sentencing reform organizations, such as Families Against Mandatory Minimum’s, whose president, Kevin Ring, stated, “The compromise bill President Trump endorsed today will keep more families together, strengthen communities, and keep crime low.”

Despite the widespread support, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has warned President Trump that it is unlikely the bill will pass by the end of the year

Sen. McConnell, who, as majority leader controls the Senate floor, has expressed concern over angering members of his party, such as Sen. Cotton by bringing the bill to a vote and has also stated he has yet to see definitive vote counts that would ensure the bill’s passage.  He delivered this news to President Trump in a meeting shortly after the president announced his support for the bill.  While Grassley and Durbin have been working hard to muster votes in each of their parties, both have faced opposition from their more extreme members, who have argued that the bill either goes too far or not far enough.  While McConnell has not completely shut the door on the bill, he recently stated that he will have to “see how it stacks up against our other priorities going into the end of our session.”

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