Prison Reform Gets a Jailbreak

Even with some conservative opposition, the bill sailed through the Senate.

Jordan Candler · Dec. 20, 2018

Despite having to navigate through troubled waters, the FIRST STEP Act officially received Senate approval this week. Eighty-seven senators supported passage Tuesday, with just 12 senators objecting. As the Washington Examiner reports, “With the House of Representatives almost certain to pass the bill, the Senate vote sets up a major legislative victory for President Trump — who has promised to sign it — as he approaches the halfway point of his four-year term.”

Last month we summarized the bill’s components here and here. The FIRST STEP Act originally passed the House this past May, but a few changes in the Senate call for a do-over in the lower chamber. That presumably will happen without much difficulty. But not everybody got their wish.

The Examiner goes on to report, “The Senate spent about a day debating the measure, and lawmakers defeated several GOP amendments that threatened to sink the bill by drawing opposition from Democrats. The most significant threat came from Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a staunch opponent of the legislation, and John Kennedy, R-La. They introduced an amendment that would exclude from the legislation those who have committed crimes of violence and sexual offenses including carjacking, robbery, hate crimes, and coercing a minor into sexual activity.”

According to Cotton, “While the bill has marginally improved from earlier versions, I’m disappointed my amendments to exclude child molesters from early release and to protect victims’ rights were not adopted. I also remain concerned that reducing sentences for drug traffickers and violent felons is a threat to public safety.”

However, “Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, warned on the Senate floor that the Cotton amendment, if passed, would destroy the coalition of Democrats and Republicans needed to pass it,” the Examiner explains, adding, “Grassley said Cotton’s amendment is unnecessary because the bill, as written, aims to help low-level offenders and ‘renders dangerous and violent criminals ineligible for the benefits.’ It was soundly defeated in a 37-62 vote.”

The Examiner continues, “Senators then voted 33-66 to defeat a provision offered by Cotton and Kennedy that would require a quarterly report on prisoners granted early release as well as notification of the victims of their crimes. … Grassley said victims are already notified when prisoners are released. He said the Kennedy amendment might allow bias and human error to block the release of a prisoner entitled to freedom under the legislation.”

It’s worth noting that Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse was another notable conservative who voiced reservations about the FIRST STEP Act. He stated, “It will also release thousands of violent felons very early. That’s a grave mistake that will hurt innocent Americans. Good intentions are not enough.” That’s not to say Cotton, Kennedy, and Sasse don’t have a point. But Grassley and other Republicans evidently disagree.

Perhaps something that should have been amended to the bill is a proscription against taxpayer dollars going to the Nation of Islam for prisoner proselytization.

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