House Clears Criminal Justice Legislation, Sending It to Trump

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed sweeping legislation to replace decades of rigid war-on-crime sentences in the U.S. criminal justice system with more flexible guidelines for judges and aid to nonviolent offenders preparing for life outside prison.

The House’s 358-36 vote came Thursday after the Senate passed the measure on its own lopsided vote of 87-12 Tuesday. The twin votes give Republicans who control both chambers of Congress a victory before Democrats take the House next month.

President Donald Trump lobbied to revive the legislation after it appeared doomed in the Senate this month, with the congressional session nearing its end and lawmakers eyeing the exits. Trump said in a tweet this week he’ll sign it.

“This is a great bi-partisan achievement for everybody,” Trump said in a tweet after the measure passed. “When both parties work together we can keep our Country safer.”

The bill, S. 756, would reduce prison sentences for some nonviolent offenses, and includes some changes to mandatory minimums for prior drug felons. In particular, a “three-strikes” penalty for repeat drug felonies is reduced from life imprisonment to 25 years. The bill also clarifies that prison sentences can’t be “stacked” for those who possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense, if the individual hasn’t been previously convicted.

The measure would provide $75 million in each of the next five years for job training and substance-abuse programs to help ex-convicts succeed after release. More inmates could petition to reduce sentence disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The bill would limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and require inmates to be imprisoned within 500 miles of their homes whenever possible.

Passage is a victory for outside groups that worked for more than four years starting during the Obama administration to get lawmakers to reconsider how the federal government metes out justice under get-tough approaches sparked in part by an explosion in the illegal drug trade during the 1990s. Advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union and billionaires Charles and David Koch argued for a system they said would be more fair, reduce repeat offenses and curb the size of a costly prison population.

Lobbying by Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as Vice President Mike Pence, helped to dislodge the bill in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had said for weeks he was unlikely to bring the bill to the floor, but then changed course after the White House push helped persuade holdout conservative senators, including Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, to back it.

The Senate legislation was revised to eliminate the potential for certain types of felons to get credits for reduced prison sentences, including carjackers and dealers of deadly fentanyl. That aided the push for conservative Republican votes.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.