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Press Release

Senate Must Refuse to Add Poison Pill Amendments to Sentencing Reform Bill

These proposed amendments would stigmatize incarcerated people, block incentives that encourage those who need it most from participating in recidivism-reduction programming, and risk retraumatizing victims of crime.

December 16, 2018

Lawmakers Should Reject the Efforts by Hard­line Oppon­ents and Pass the Reas­on­able, Bipar­tisan FIRST STEP Act as it Stands

MEDIA CONTACT: Rebecca Autrey,, 646–292–8316

New York, NY – The Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law strongly rejects attempts by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and John Kennedy (R-La.) to add a series of “poison pill” amend­ments that would unac­cept­ably weaken the FIRST STEP Act, a senten­cing reform bill sched­uled for a vote in the Senate this week. These amend­ments would stig­mat­ize incar­cer­ated people, block incent­ives that encour­age those who need it most from parti­cip­at­ing in recidiv­ism-reduc­tion program­ming, and risk retrau­mat­iz­ing victims of crime.

“These amend­ments are meant to sabot­age the bipar­tisan comprom­ise FIRST STEP repres­ents,” said Ames Grawert, senior coun­sel in the Bren­nan Center’s Justice Program. “Senat­ors Cotton and Kennedy are hard­line oppon­ents of any crim­inal justice reform, and they are not bargain­ing in good faith. The Senate should in no way capit­u­late to their extrem­ist posi­tion. Instead, the Senate should pass the FIRST STEP Act as it stands, and begin chip­ping away at the coun­try’s horrific obses­sion with mass incar­cer­a­tion.”

The Bren­nan Center further reit­er­ates its strong support for the revised FIRST STEP Act. Origin­ally, the legis­la­tion was a modest prison reform bill — aimed only at improv­ing prison condi­tions — and the Bren­nan Center joined other progress­ive groups in oppos­ing such a half-hearted effort. But the final bill makes signi­fic­ant changes to overly-punit­ive federal drug sentences, making it a true first step toward revers­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion. The Senate should act now to send it to the pres­id­ent’s desk before the new year.


The Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpar­tisan law and policy insti­tute that works to reform, revital­ize – and when neces­sary, defend – our coun­try’s systems of demo­cracy and justice.