With only a few days left before the 115th Congress is dismissed, legislators on Capitol Hill have an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in a generation: pass significant sentencing and prison reform.
This week, the Senate is expected to vote on the First Step Act, which proposes changes to past and future sentencing for the federal system.
The legislation will expand judges' discretion to avoid mandatory sentencing, reduce “three strike” sentencing on drug and serious violent offense convictions from life to 25 years, and restrict stacking of gun charges to make sentences longer. To improve the chances for success after reentry, the bill expands “good time credit” and allows “earned time credit” — incentivizing people in federal prisons to maintain a clean disciplinary record and participate in educational and vocational training to reduce the length of their sentence. A risk-assessment algorithm will identify those who are high-risk and will bar them from utilizing credits they have earned. The bill will also shorten the sentences of people who were convicted of crack-related offenses prior to 2010.
Unrelated to sentencing but equally important, the bill addresses quality-of-life issues in prisons. One example is that the bill bans the shackling of women during childbirth and ensures that women receive personal hygiene products such as tampons.
A previous version of the bill overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives in May (360-59). Since May, a coalition of criminal justice and prison reform advocates from the political left and right have been working to amend the bill to get Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow for a vote as well as to appease Democrats who worried that the scope of the bill that passed the House was too limited.
In November, President Trump endorsed the bill.
Threatening the bill are a slew of amendments that were offered by Republicans, which some consider to be a poison pill.
Area legislators are split on the bill. Of the 59 nay votes in the House, seven were from Pennsylvania and New Jersey Democrats, including state party leaders Bob Brady and Donald Norcross. Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker originally opposed the bill and now is a co-sponsor. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez supports the bill but might not support it if the amendments are added. On the other hand, Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey will support the bill with the amendments. Democratic Sen. Bob Casey supports the bill.