Time running out on passage of bipartisan criminal justice reform bill

Less than a month after a midterm election that was supposed to give bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation a boost, it now appears that the bipartisan-supported First Step Act bill will not be passed before year’s end as many supporters had hoped.

President Donald Trump threw his support behind the bill, which was passed in May by a House vote of 360 to 59 but has stalled in the Senate, and he called on Congress to pass the legislation during a Nov. 14 White House news conference. “Our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens,” the president said in endorsing the legislation.

But two days later, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has long been skeptical of the bill, told President Trump that there is not enough time to bring the legislation up for a vote this year, according to a New York Times report.

The First Step Act builds on the bill passed by the House, adding four key additional changes to the sentencing laws, providing training programs for prisoners to help them successfully reenter society, expanding early-release credits for prisoners and reducing some mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

A group of lawmakers from both parties — including Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries — had been working to build support for the compromise legislation that would reverse some of the tough-on-crime federal policies of the 1980s and 1990s that have resulted in the incarceration of African-American offenders at much higher rates than white offenders. U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has encouraged his Senate colleagues to support the revised legislation. But opponents of the bill, including Democrat Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, say the bill is a “step backwards.”

The current legislative session is scheduled to recess Dec. 14.

Related links: