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House Sends Criminal Justice Reform Bill to Trump

First Step Act is designed to help inmates leave jail behind

Congress was able to pass a major criminal justice reform bill with bipartisan support on Wednesday despite an already busy schedule as the end of the year approaches.

The First Step Act is designed to reform the criminal justice system and help inmates leave jail and their criminal lives behind.

The House passed the bill with overwhelming bipartisan support on a 358 to 36 vote. President Donald Trump now needs to sign the bill, which he has actively supported over the last few months.

The Senate also passed the legislation with strong support a couple of days ago, with a 87 to 12 vote. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have been leading efforts to pass the bill since introducing it on November 15.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) welcomed the bill and said his chamber would take it up.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was more hesitant, given all else lawmakers have to tackle before congressional control splits in the new session on January 3.

But he eventually relented last week amid mounting bipartisan pressure.

“The First Step Act will help keep our streets safe and it offers a fresh start to those who’ve put in the work to get right with the law while paying their debt to society,” Grassley said from the floor shortly after the Senate passed it.

“It also addresses unfairness in prison sentencing and revises policies that have led to overcrowded prisons and ballooning taxpayer expenses.”

Related: Senate Passes Criminal Justice Reform Bill with Overwhelming Support

The First Step Act encourages inmates to participate in programs designed to help them stay away from crime. The programs include vocational training, drug treatments, educational coursework and faith-based initiatives. The inmates can then earn credits that reduce the amount of time spent in prison in return.

“Several decades ago, Congress passed well-intentioned laws imposing harsh mandatory sentences to stop the flow of drugs in our communities,” Grassley said. “I voted for those laws. But they’ve had some unintended consequences.”

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, and others also worked on the legislation and helped to garner support for it. They were quickly able to gain a large bipartisan group of lawmakers to support the legislation.

The First Step Act has seen alliances form among groups that are usually political rivals. The legislation has support from conservative and libertarian groups such as Right on Crime and Freedom Partners. But is also has the backing of more liberal and progressive groups, such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The First Step Act does have its critics as well; they argue it’s a bill that gives too many privileges to criminals without regard for the victims. Arizona Voice for Crime Victims, Force 100 and other victim rights groups have argued the bill will result in reduced sentences for violent criminals.

Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and John Kennedy (R-La.) introduced an amendment to the bill on December 11 that would specifically forbid violent criminals and sex-offenders from qualifying for early release programs. They argued the bill in its current form undermines public safety and puts the rights of criminals before victims.

It was rejected as a provision within the bill.

Related: McConnell Flips on Criminal Justice Bill Amid Bipartisan Pressure

“I voted against this bill because the most important goal of the criminal justice system for American families is justice,” Kennedy said in a statement shortly after the Senate vote. “This bill is backwards. It favors criminals over victims. It forgets that the ultimate goal is justice. We’ve seen what’s happened with so-called criminal justice reform in Louisiana. People are literally getting killed.”

The proposed amendment could also require prison wardens to notify victims before an offender gets an early release. It also includes a measure to track the effectiveness of anti-recidivism programs. The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law argued against the proposal as a “poison pill” amendment that would weaken the bill.

The U.S. Department of Justice found that an estimated 2,162,400 people were being incarcerated in federal and state prisons and county jails in 2016.

The legislation will also place federal inmates closer to their communities in order to facilitate family visitations.

The rate fell for nine consecutive years prior to that point, but still represented 830 of every 100,000 adults in the country.

The legislation will also place federal inmates closer to their communities in order to facilitate family visitations.

It will additionally reform mandatory minimums policies to decrease racially discriminatory outcomes, overcrowded prisons and costs. The proposal will also eliminate the three-strike mandatory life provision for nonviolent criminals.

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