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U.S. Senate passes landmark criminal justice reform

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday night passed major reforms to America’s prison and sentencing system that are aimed at reducing recidivism, saving tax dollars and promoting safe communities.

The bipartisan First Step Act was introduced by Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois,  Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa,  and Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Cory Booker, D-N.J., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

Sponsors say the measure uses evidence-based recidivism reduction programs to help inmates successfully return to society after serving their sentence. It also reduces some sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent offenders while preserving important law enforcement tools to tackle criminal enterprises.

“Tonight, by a vote of 87-12 the members of the Senate proved that we can work together for the good of our nation,” Durbin said in a statement. “Passage of the First Step Act is the most significant change to our system of criminal justice in decades. It was supported by an amazing coalition of unlikely partners – progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans, law enforcement groups and civil rights groups, business leaders and faith-based organizations. By passing the legislation, the country will begin to relieve overcrowded prisons and redirect funding to the most pressing crime prevention efforts,” Durbin said.

Members were hoping for swift passage in the House, and the president has voiced support for the reforms.

“Our country’s criminal justice system is broken – and it has been broken for decades,” Booker said. “You cannot deny justice to any American without it affecting all Americans. That’s why the passage of the First Step Act tonight is so meaningful – it begins to right past wrongs that continue to deny justice to millions of Americans.”

The measure contains provisions that aim to ensure a brighter future for those who have served their time and are re-entering society.
“By cutting recidivism, encouraging job training, education and mental health and substance abuse treatments for incarcerated individuals, and making our criminal justice system both smarter and tougher, we have taken a positive step forward tonight,” Scott said.

The First Step Act combines prison reform proposals that overwhelmingly passed in the House of Representatives earlier this year with sentencing reform provisions from the broadly bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which was authored by Durbin and Grassley and approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February.

The package aims to improve fairness in prison sentences by recalibrating certain mandatory minimum sentences while expanding their application to new categories of violent felons. The bill grants greater discretion to judges in sentencing of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who cooperate with law enforcement. It also clarifies congressional intent on sentencing enhancements for certain crimes involving firearms. The First Step Act preserves the maximum potential sentences for violent and career criminals.

The legislation also allows petitions for retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act to be considered on an individual basis to reduce sentence disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Under this legislation, any savings generated by the reforms are automatically reinvested into law enforcement programs to further reduce crime and improve community safety.

The First Step Act includes safeguards that prevent career and violent criminals from receiving earned time credits toward pre-release custody following completion of recidivism reduction programs. Under the bill, each inmate is evaluated using a data-driven risk and needs assessment tool to determine their likelihood of reoffending upon release. Only inmates found to be a low or minimum risk may benefit from earned time credits. Conviction for a number of serious offenses also disqualify inmates from earning time credits.

The First Step Act is modeled after state-based reforms that have proven to reduce crime, prison populations and taxpayer expenses.

The act is backed by a number of law enforcement groups, including the nation’s largest police group. It’s also supported by 172 former federal prosecutors including two former Republican U.S. attorneys general, two former deputy attorneys general and a former director of the FBI along with sheriffs from 34 states across the country. The National Governor’s Association, which represents the governors of all 50 states, praised the bill. A broad coalition of conservative and progressive groups along with a host of business leaders and faith-based organizations also support the First Step Act.

In a short statement, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, pointed out what she sees as crucial components of the act.

“This bipartisan legislation is an important step in the right direction that will make our criminal justice system fairer and more effective. It will relieve overcrowded prisons, prohibit inhumane practices like the shackling of pregnant prisoners and reform ineffective sentencing requirements to empower judges to exercise appropriate discretion when sentencing individuals for low-level, non-violent offenses. It will also retroactively reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which has disproportionately incarcerated people of color for longer periods of time.

“Critically, this legislation will also make it easier for incarcerated individuals to stay in touch with their loved ones and it will provide them with greater access to educational and vocational programs, as well as improve the use of reentry programs, to help reduce recidivism and make it easier for former prisoners to have a chance to succeed and contribute to their communities once they have repaid their debt to society.”

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