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

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.