Pressure Builds for Senate to Pass Criminal Justice Reform

Both Republicans and Democrats are pushing Mitch McConnell to hold a vote on the FIRST STEP Act

December 5, 2018

A bipartisan group of senators is on the cusp of passing a meaningful criminal justice reform bill. Known as the FIRST STEP Act, the bill would shorten some unnecessarily long prison sentences and enforce rules that will improve conditions for people currently in prison. President Trump announced his support for the bill last month.

Before the midterms, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated he would consider calling a vote before the end of the year during Congress’s lame-duck session if the bill earned the support of more than 60 senators. But the bill has since stalled in the Senate. McConnell, in particular, has enabled the delay, hinting that there would not be enough time to bring it up for a vote. And a faction of Republican senators led by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has continued to voice opposition to the measure.

However, backers of the FIRST STEP Act say that at least 70 senators would vote in favor of the bill if a vote were called today. That includes more than half of the Republicans in the Senate, including key leaders such as Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Grassley, who helped write the legislation, has said that the bill could pass in as little as three or four days, arguing that there is “plenty of time to pass” it in December.

The current draft of the FIRST STEP Act includes several key provisions on sentencing reform, including shortening mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. It would, for example, ease the federal “three strikes” rule — which currently imposes a life sentence for three or more convictions — and instead issue a 25-year sentence. The bill expands the “drug safety-valve,” which would allow judges more discretion to deviate from mandatory minimums when sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses.

The amended FIRST STEP Act would also make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. The Fair Sentencing Act helped reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses — a disparity that has largely fallen along racial lines. The FIRST STEP Act would apply the Fair Sentencing Act to 3,000 people who were convicted of crack offenses before the law went into effect.

The FIRST STEP Act isn't perfect. It will leave significant mandatory minimum sentences in place. In addition, two of its key sentencing provisions are not retroactive, which minimizes their overall impact.

Nonetheless, the sentencing reforms in the bill are an important step in addressing unnecessarily harsh prison sentences, which propelled the increase of mass incarceration in the United States. That first step could happen soon — if the Senate Majority Leader stops putting off the vote.

(Image: Win McNamee/Getty)