Politics

McConnell Flips on Criminal Justice Bill Amid Bipartisan Pressure

Kentucky senator had resisted bringing it to a vote, given all the other issues lawmakers must tackle — including the budget

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) relented in bringing a major criminal justice reform bill up for a vote Tuesday amid mounting bipartisan pressure.

“At the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation that have been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the recently revised criminal justice bill this month,” McConnell said from the Senate floor.

McConnell repeated his decision to move on the bill shortly afterward on social media.

Related: Jared Kushner on Prison Reform Bill: It Will ‘Accomplish a Lot to Keep Our Communities Safer’

The First Step Act is designed to reform the criminal justice system in a way that helps inmates leave jail and their criminal lives behind.

The bill amends the federal criminal code to establish a system focused on rehabilitating inmates by incentivizing them to partake in programs aimed at helping them re-enter society.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have been leading efforts to pass the bill, which they introduced on November 15. The bill was a revised version of one passed in the House earlier in the year.

They have since been working to shape a finished bill that can pass with bipartisan support.

Related: Trump on Criminal Justice Reform: ‘It Has Tremendous Support No Matter Where We Go’

Trump and a large bipartisan coalition of lawmakers have been fighting to get the proposal to a vote.

McConnell has resisted bringing it up, with all the other issues lawmakers have to tackle, such as the budget, before the session ends in January. Republicans have a tight deadline to get priorities done, given that congressional control will be splitting in the new session.

Criminal justice reform has been a debated issue for many years, but only recently did it begin gaining vast bipartisan attention with stories of nonviolent criminals facing harsh sentences.

The U.S. Department of Justice found that an estimated 2,162,400 people were incarcerated in federal and state prisons and county jails in 2016. The rate fell for nine consecutive years prior to that point, but still represents 830 of every 100,000 adults in the country.

Trump has been very involved in supporting for the bill and he helped put pressure on McConnell to allow a vote.

The president even hosted a roundtable of experts and advocates at the White House to discuss the bill on November 26. Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner all joined him.

“Sen. McConnell’s decision to move forward with a vote is overdue but welcome,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, in a statement. “This bill will be the biggest reform to our justice system in a generation. It’s indeed a first step, an initial salvo in ending the country’s miserable addiction to mass incarceration. But it is a must-pass bill. And it must be properly implemented.”

The First Step Act has seen some opposition despite the bipartisan support it’s been getting. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has notably warned that the bill is deceptive. He took issue with the idea that the bill doesn’t give inmates early release — and noted provisions would actually allow violent drug offenders a much earlier release.

“Assume this trafficker has a prior serious drug felony,” Cotton said in a tweet on November 20. “Under current law, minimum 20-year sentence. Under the First Step Act, reduced to 15 years, or 5 years earlier release.”

The First Step Act promotes prisoner participation in vocational training, educational coursework or faith-based programs to help them successfully re-enter society. This will help them gain job skills, drug treatment and education.

Prisoners, in return, will be able to earn credits that reduce the amount of time spent in prison.

The legislation will also place federal inmates closer to their communities in order to facilitate family visitations. Additionally, the proposal will 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. Certain nonviolent offenders will be able to petition the courts for a review of their sentences. A judge can then make a decision as to whether to reduce the sentence or not after reviewing all circumstances, including public safety, criminal history and the offense.

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