WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Tuesday approved legislation overhauling the nation’s federal criminal justice system, rejecting attempts by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to amend it.
Known as the First Step Act, the bill received strong bipartisan support, passing 87-12. It now heads to the House, where a vote is expected later this week.
Cotton was one of the dozen no votes. U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., voted “yes.”
The White House had lobbied for the legislation, which was backed by organizations from across the political and cultural spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the National Association of Evangelicals and Prison Fellowship.
An earlier version had already passed in the House 360-59 with support from all four of Arkansas’ congressmen. Just two Republicans voted no.
President Donald Trump hailed the Senate vote as a great step forward.
“America is the greatest Country in the world and my job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes,” the president tweeted. “This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!”
The Senate sponsor, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on Tuesday said, “We had to show the colleagues in the Congress that we had broad support from what you might say [are] the extreme right to the extreme left in support of this legislation,” he said.
There are currently 180,789 people in federal prison facilities, up from about 25,000 in 1980, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Overall, there were 2.16 million people who were incarcerated on the local, state and national level as of Dec. 31, 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Supporters said the measure would give a second chance to thousands of low-risk, nonviolent offenders. Cotton argued that the bill would imperil public safety.
“I think many of the policies in this bill are deeply unwise to allow early release from prison thousands of serious, repeat and potentially violent felons over the next few months if this bill passes,” the lawmaker from Dardanelle said.
Along with U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., Cotton introduced three amendments; all three were soundly rejected.
After the votes, a spokesman for Cotton said the senator would not be available for comment Tuesday evening, but in a written statement, he said:
“While the bill has marginally improved from earlier versions, I’m disappointed my amendments to exclude child molesters from early release and to protect victims’ rights were not adopted. I also remain concerned that reducing sentences for drug traffickers and violent felons is a threat to public safety.”
If the First Step Act becomes law, people imprisoned under the three-strikes law would no longer face automatic life sentences; instead they would face 25 years in prison. Certain drug offenses that carry automatic 20-year sentences would result in 15-year sentences.
It would also make retroactive a 2010 law that reduced the disparity between powder-cocaine and crack-cocaine-related convictions. Before 2010, crack-cocaine possessors were dealt with more severely than those caught with powder cocaine.
In addition, the legislation would expand supervised early-release programs for low-risk prisoners, enabling well-behaved inmates to get credit for enlisting in job-training programs, among other things, supporters say.
The legislation exempts dozens of categories of crimes from early-release programs.
Prisoners would be housed within 500 miles of their hometowns.
The use of shackles to restrain pregnant women would generally be prohibited. The exceptions would be because there was no other means of stopping a woman who is a flight risk or who is determined to harm herself or others, or if it is necessary to protect her medical safety.
The legislation mandates screening, upon admission, for inmates with learning disabilities. It also requires de-escalation training to help corrections officers better respond to inmates who have mental illnesses or cognitive impairment.
The overhaul of federal sentencing laws is overdue, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said in a text message to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
“A lot of the policies enacted in the ’90s designed to be ‘tough on crime’ were disastrous. Good intentions, but [they] failed to reduce recidivism and busted the budgets,” Huckabee said. “3 strikes, you’re out’ was a great applause line, but an awful policy.”
The First Step Act is a reasonable proposal, Huckabee said.
“This bill is NOT a ‘soft on crime’ bill as Cotton alleges,” Huckabee said. “He is wrong about this on so many fronts. Very disappointing. Had he ever had to deal with the administration of a prison system or had 1,000 clemency cases come over his desk a year as I did, he would better understand that First Step doesn’t ‘let people out of jail free’ nor does it forget the victims. It does include the important factor of viewing each case individually.”
The Rev. Ronnie Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas and a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, said religious leaders encouraged Trump to make criminal justice changes a priority.
“The White House reached out to a number of faith leaders initially to get our input on this matter,” he said in an email. “Each of us believed strongly that all along there would be an interest across America to do all we can to update these laws in a productive manner in pursuit of a more just and fair criminal justice system.”
People behind bars shouldn’t be forsaken, Floyd said.
The Rev. Sharon Nesbitt of Dominion World Church in Marion spoke with Trump in August and thanked him for making criminal justice legislation a priority.
Other black ministers on hand for the meeting also stressed its importance.
“As a pastor I’ve got to see the good in everybody because that’s what Jesus did. If we teach them and we love them and we show them a better way, I really believe that we can change, we can really change our culture and our society,” she said.
Read more at Justice bill supported by senators.