Senate Passes Criminal Justice Overhaul After White House Push
(Bloomberg) -- The Senate passed a bill to overhaul criminal sentencing guidelines in a rare victory for President Donald Trump, who lobbied to revive a bipartisan measure that had appeared doomed as lawmakers near the end of the congressional session.
The 87-12 vote Tuesday sends to the House a measure that would curtail jail sentences for some nonviolent offenders, help some ex-convicts adjust to life after release from prison, and address disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said earlier this month the House would act on the Senate bill and “stands ready to get it done.”
After the Senate voted, the president wrote on Twitter: “I look forward to signing this into law!”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had said for weeks he was unlikely to bring the bill to the floor. He changed course last week and agreed to allow a vote after Trump and senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner led a successful lobbying effort to persuade holdout conservative senators, including Ted Cruz of Texas, to back it. McConnell set a high bar for the legislation, saying it would need at least 80 supporters before he would put it on the floor.
Advocates said the measure will enact lessons from states where improved prison procedures have reduced repeat offenses.
“Our prisons should be more than just a warehouse for human beings,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican leader. “They should also serve as places where they have the opportunity, once they’ve made a mistake and served their time, to transform their own lives into productive citizens.”
The drive to revamp sentencing rules, a priority of the Obama administration, had been held up in the GOP-led Congress even though it had the backing of Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and billionaire Republican donors Charles and David Koch. White House support and some adjustments to the original plan jump-started the effort.
The legislation would cut mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. For example, the minimums for drug-related felonies with a previous conviction would be reduced to 15 years from the current 20 years. Judges would get more discretion to set sentences for people charged with low-level drug crimes who cooperate with police. And many inmates could earn credits allowing them to serve the end of their term in home confinement.
The measure would provide $75 million in each of the next five years for job training and substance-abuse programs to help prisoners 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.
Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, worked together to advance the legislation and pushed hard for resolution this year. Proponents made last-minute changes that helped gain support, excluding more types of prisoners from earning time credits toward early release from prison, including all fentanyl traffickers and those who committed felonies while in a criminal street gang.
Republicans Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana opposed the bill, saying it would let too many violent criminals qualify for early release and wouldn’t do enough to protect crime victims’ rights. They unsuccessfully sought several amendments, including one to require victims to be notified of the date the perpetrator would get early release and allow them to file a statement about it.
“All this would do is say that victims have rights too,” Kennedy said.
But Grassley said current law already provides victim notification and lets victims opt out of notices if they don’t want them. Grassley said the amendment would end that and potentially “retraumatize” victims.
The Senate adopted by voice vote a proposal by Cruz and GOP Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma that would expand the list of offenses for which prisoners can’t get credits toward a reduced sentence, including carjacking, kidnapping and arson. The amendment also ensures that faith-based groups can provide counseling and other services in prisons.
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