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Analysis

Senate to Vote on Criminal Justice Reform

In a major announcement, Mitch McConnell said he'll bring the FIRST STEP Act up for a vote this month. The bipartisan bill would be the biggest reform of our justice system in a generation, and would move us closer to ending mass incarceration.

  • Brennan Center for Justice
December 11, 2018

The Senate will vote on a sweeping criminal justice reform bill before the end of the year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday. If passed, the bill, known as the FIRST STEP Act, would shorten some unnecessarily long prison sentences and enforce rules that will improve conditions for people currently in prison.

McConnell cautioned that senators “should now be prepared to work between Christmas and New Year’s."

There is bipartisan support in Congress for the FIRST STEP Act

Before the midterms, McConnell signaled he would consider calling a vote on the bill during Congress’s lame-duck session if it had the support of more than 60 senators. Backers of the bill suggest that more than 70 senators now support it, including more than half of the Republicans in the Senate. President Trump also announced his support for the bill last month.

“It’s about time. With the president, Republicans, and Democrats rallying firmly behind FIRST STEP, McConnell’s decision to move forward with a vote is overdue but welcome," said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. "This bill will be the biggest reform to our justice system in a generation."

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 also allow the retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. 

The bill isn't perfect: It fails to make two of its key sentencing provisions retroactive, and it will leave significant mandatory minimum sentences in place. But the sentencing reforms in the bill mark a substantial step forward for criminal justice reform.

“This bill must pass. It must be duly enforced,” said Chettiar. “And then a newly unified national consensus around ending mass imprisonment should lead us to the next step in making our system more fair and more humane.”

(Image: Win McNamee/Getty)