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May 31, 2018

House passes legislation focusing on prison reforms

The House passed a bill May 22 that focuses on prison reforms aimed at reducing recidivism by providing rehabilitation programs to inmates.   

H.R. 5682, known as the FIRST STEP Act and cosponsored May 7 by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), is a companion bill to S. 2795, legislation introduced the same day by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

The bill, which is reportedly supported by the White  House, passed by a 360-59 vote. It is uncertain, however, whether the Senate will consider the legislation, which is much narrower than the bipartisan comprehensive Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, S. 1917, that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in February.

Many of the provisions in the FIRST STEP Act are based on successful prison reform efforts at the state level.

Under the legislation, the Bureau of Prisons would implement programs that provide incentives for prisoner participation so that eligible prisoners could earn credits toward alternative custody arrangements as they approach the end of their sentences. This would include halfway houses or home confinement. Programs would include vocational training, educational support, substance abuse treatment, mental health care, anger management courses, faith-based initiatives and other resources to help prevent recidivism.  In addition, prisoners would have more employment opportunities available to them in prison as well as training programs for youth mentorship and the training and therapy of rescue dogs.

The legislation also includes provisions to increase the use and transparency of compassionate release for elderly and terminally ill prisoners.

“H.R. 5682 places a new focus on rehabilitation,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said during the May 9 committee markup of the bill. “While we recognize criminal behavior needs to be punished and criminals need to be incarcerated, we must also acknowledge that our prison population needs to be rehabilitated to the greatest extent practicable.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a sponsor of S. 1917, continues to support the comprehensive approach to criminal justice reform even though there are no immediate plans to bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote.

While S. 1917 includes some of the corrections provisions included in the FIRST STEP Act, the Senate bill also includes sentencing reforms that would narrow the scope of mandatory minimum sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals and broaden the existing “safety valve” that allows judges to use discretion in sentencing lower level nonviolent offenders.

The ABA has policy supporting corrections provisions in both the House and Senate legislation.

Back to the May 2018 Washington Letter