House Passes Landmark Criminal Justice Reform Bill

December 20, 2018 Updated: December 20, 2018

The House of Representatives on Dec. 20, passed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill in a rare display of bipartisan unity.

The landmark measure, dubbed the First Step Act, will be sent to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature after it passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 358 to 36.

The bill would help federal inmates readjust to society after completing their sentences, addressing concerns that too many Americans have been imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, without support later on. Trump has been a major backer of the bill.

Earlier, the Senate approved the legislation with a similar show of support by a vote of 87 to12.

The act (pdf), co-sponsored by more than a third of the Senate, has evenly balanced support among both Democrats and Republicans. Trump hailed the bipartisan efforts that pushed the bill through.

“Congress just passed the Criminal Justice Reform Bill known as the #FirstStepAct. Congratulations!” he wrote on Twitter. “This is a great bi-partisan achievement for everybody. When both parties work together we can keep our Country safer. A wonderful thing for the U.S.A.!!”

The measure would primarily affect drug offenders and aims to make the criminal justice system fairer, reduce overcrowding, and save taxpayer dollars. It would also adjust certain mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more leeway in the sentencing of offenders for nonviolent crimes.

The act, years in the making, represents an easing of tough, law-and-order minimal sentencing requirements imposed on judges that stemmed from a 1980s drive to clamp down on an epidemic of crack cocaine and other illegal drug use in the United States.

One of the leading sponsors of the effort Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), said the act would help to lower the nation’s high incarceration numbers. The legislation also expands on programs that reduce the recidivism risks of prisoners, such as job training programs.

“The FIRST STEP Act is not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end,” Collins said in a statement. “It’s simply the end of the beginning of a bipartisan journey to eradicate the mass incarceration epidemic in America.”

The bill’s passage comes after years of overhaul efforts from a number of liberal and conservative advocacy groups, civil right advocates, and from Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner who has been a major advocate of prison reform.

Conservatives and liberals in Congress worked in an uncharacteristically bipartisan fashion to pass the bill, which would apply only to the 180,789 people in federal prisons and future inmates, and not to the more than 2 million who are housed in state penitentiaries, the Associated Press reported.

“These changes recognize the fundamental unfairness of a system that imposes lengthy imprisonment that is not based on the facts and circumstances of each offender and each case,” Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler said during the House debate.

Under the bill, maximum penalties are maintained for violent felons and drug kingpins.

But mandatory minimum penalties are reduced for others by giving judges expanded discretion when handing down sentences. And prisoners can earn time credits toward their release to halfway houses or home confinement.

“Almost half of federal inmates released from prison are rearrested, & nearly a fourth end up back behind bars. The will help to end the recidivism epidemic by creating programs to rehabilitate low-risk offenders, making our communities safer & saving taxpayer money,” Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) wrote on Twitter.

Vice President Mike Pence called the prison reform act a win for the American people and congratulated both the House and Senate. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump called it a “Christmas miracle years in the making!” on Twitter, adding that the president’s signature was forthcoming.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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