• This week Congress passed a landmark criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act; it passed 87-12 in the Senate and 358 to 36 in the House.
  • The bill was supported an ideologically broad coalition ranging from the ACLU and Center for American Progress on the left to the American Conservative Union and Koch brothers on the right.
  • The First Step Act will immediately make thousands of federal inmates eligible for reduced sentences and reduce many more sentences going forward.

Three decades after the peak of the “war on crime,” the United States is on the verge of making significant changes to the federal criminal justice system. Earlier this week the Senate passed the First Step Act, a bipartisan measure that would, among other things, modify sentencing laws to more equitably punish drug offenders and take steps to reduce recidivism, with a decisive 87-12 majority vote. And today, the House sent the bill to the desk of President Donald Trump with an equally decisive 358-36 vote.

The bill was spearheaded in the Senate by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Mike Lee, R-Utah and Cory Booker, D-N.J. Trump, whose unexpected support for the bill last month gave new life to the initiative as it was in danger of stalling, tweeted earlier this week that he is looking forward to signing it into law.

Despite the overwhelming support for the bill, the Senate had to defeat amendments proposed by two major critics of the bill, GOP Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana. Their amendments would have required the Bureau of Prisons to track released offenders and notify victims prior to their release.

In the words of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the bill brought together “an incredible coalition of the unusual suspects,” ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union and Center for American Progress on the left to the American Conservative Union and Koch brothers on the right. It will affect the roughly 181,000 inmates currently incarcerated in federal prisons, a small but significant portion of the 2.1 million inmates in the US jail and prison system.

“This bill in its entirety has been endorsed by the political spectrum of America,” Durbin told The New York Times. “I can’t remember any bill that has this kind of support, left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican.”

Even though it falls short of both sides’ ideal benchmarks for a more comprehensive overhaul of the criminal justice system, the bill has been widely lauded as a step in the right direction and a symbol of the bipartisanship that is still possible in Washington despite America’s polarized political system.

“If we could get a perfect comprehensive bill, we’d do it,” Alex Gudich, deputy director for #cut50, a national advocacy group pushing to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system, told USA Today. “This bill is also the product of some difficult political trade-offs. But it’s better to move this bill with all the things it does than to sit back and wait. We could end waiting another three to four years.”

Assuming Trump signs the bill into law, thousands of federal inmates will immediately become eligible for reduced sentences and expanded early-release programs, and many more prison sentences will be reduced going forward.

For a more detailed policy overview of the First Step Act, read this summary in the Marshall Project.

Image Credit: “The view from the Senate” by Phil Roeder is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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