The First Step Act passed on a vote of 87 to 12, with dozens of Republicans, including longtime holdout Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), joining all 49 members of the Democratic caucus to approve legislation that even some GOP supporters fear could leave them vulnerable to charges of being soft on crime.
“This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it,” he wrote on Twitter. “In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!”
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. 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 longtime incarceration.
The bill would revise several sentencing laws, such as reducing the “three strikes” penalty for drug felonies from life behind bars to 25 years and retroactively limiting the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The latter would affect about 2,000 current federal inmates.
It also overhauls the federal prison system to help inmates earn reduced sentences and lower recidivism rates. A different version passed the House this year, so the House would have to pass the latest draft before it can be sent to Trump for his signature. The House is expected to endorse that bill when it comes up for a likely vote later this week, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has expressed support for the legislation.
The bill, which does not cover state jails and prisons, would through reductions in sentencing do the equivalent of shaving a collective 53,000 years off the sentences of federal inmates over the next 10 years , according to the Congressional Budget Office — though some advocacy groups dispute this figure. There were about 181,000 federal inmates as of Dec. 13, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
The bill received a major boost last month when Trump endorsed it as “reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off our streets.” His thinking was heavily influenced by his son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner, who has long advocated sentencing restructuring and marshaled endorsements of the bill from a diverse coalition including law enforcement, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
See More Prison News