Criminal Justic Bill Passes First Vote 12/18 06:20
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Legislation that would ease federal sentencing laws for
some offenders cleared its first major test vote Monday, garnering overwhelming
support in both parties even as some conservatives portrayed the bill as soft
The Senate voted 82-12 to advance the bill. A vote on final passage would
come later in the week, but not until the chamber has debated and voted on a
series of amendments from opponents that will be brought up Tuesday.
The bill would give judges more discretion when sentencing drug offenders
and allow about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses
before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty. The bill
also encourages prisoners to participate in programs designed to reduce the
risk of recidivism, with the reward being the accumulation of credits that can
be used to gain an earlier release to a halfway house or home confinement to
finish out their sentence.
To win over wary senators, sponsors tweaked the bill to prevent those
convicted of violent firearm offenses, sexual exploitation of children and
high-level fentanyl and heroin dealing from participating in the supervised
release program --- but Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and others want to expand
Their amendment would add carjacking, bank robbery by force, felony sex
crimes and other "felony crimes of violence" to the list of offenses that make
a prisoner ineligible.
"Some of those crimes should not be eligible for that program," said Sen.
Mike Rounds, R-S.D. "At this point, I'm probably a no unless they get that
Cotton has been among the most vocal opponents of the legislation, saying:
"If other senators want to vote for a bill that's going to let sex offenders
and child pornographers and wife-beaters out of prison, that's their
prerogative. That's between them and the voters in their state."
The bill has created a unique split in the GOP camp, while Democrats are
Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a former federal prosecutor, is among the
bill's champions. He said he has been haunted by the words of a federal judge
who sentenced a low-level drug offender carrying a gun to 55 years in prison,
noting that murderers, rapists and terrorists could get less time for their
offense. He said only Congress could fix the problem.
"Those comments have stayed with me ever since," Lee said.
The bill follows the lead of states such as Texas that have experienced a
decrease in crime in recent years while keeping fewer people in prison. Sen.
John Cornyn, R-Texas, said his home state has been able to close eight prisons
since undertaking various prison reforms, such as investing in probation
staffing and getting prisoners into drug treatment more quickly.
"This is not about being tough on crime, or soft on crime," Cornyn said.
"This is about being smart on crime and getting the best results."
Supporters of the bill warn that amendments from Cotton and Sen. John
Kennedy, R-La., could cause the compromise to unravel if the Senate approves
any of them as early as Tuesday. A unique cross-section of liberal and
conservative advocacy groups have rallied in support of the bill.
David Safavian, general counsel for the American Conservative Union, said
the bill's critics ignore that offenders would be subject to strict oversight
while completing their sentence at halfway houses or in home custody. The
prisoners also have to show through objective criteria that they are a low risk
to society before obtaining supervised release.
Under the current process, nearly half of released federal prisoners are
"And every case of recidivism is another victim, is another crime, is
another prosecution, is another trial, is another prison cell, all funded with
taxpayer dollars," Safavian said. "I'm sorry, but there is nothing conservative
about protecting a non-functioning prison bureaucracy."
If the legislation passes the Senate, the House is expected to approve it
quickly. The House had earlier passed legislation that focused on boosting
prisoner rehabilitation programs, but did not include changes to sentencing
laws that critics say had led to overly harsh sentences for many nonviolent
offenders, particularly African-Americans.
The bill looked to have stalled a couple weeks ago, but supporters led by
President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner persuaded Senate Majority
Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to allow for the Senate vote before Congress