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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)