WASHINGTON — Congress has reached a deal on a criminal justice reform bill that loosens mandatory minimum sentences and allows low-risk criminals to earn early release from prison.
The First Step Act is a culmination of years of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans trying to fix systemic injustices, such as people serving decades of prison time with no chance of parole for low-level drug offenses.
It is expected to easily pass through Congress and has already been endorsed by President Trump. The bill introduces more leniency into the justice system and allows potentially thousands of nonviolent criminals to serve shorter sentences.
“After decades of moving in the wrong direction — tougher sentencing, more mandatory minimums, more power taken away from judges — we’re stopping the wrong direction and we’re turning around and making some progress,” said Democratic Sen. Cory Booker.
Among the many changes the bill contains is making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. That 2010 law eliminated the massive disparity of treating possession of crack cocaine as 100 times more serious than possession of powdered cocaine. At the time, it was not made retroactive. The First Step Act would allow for thousands of people still serving inflated sentences under the old system to apply for relief.
The bill also reforms “three strike laws” by capping the second strike at 15 years of imprisonment, down from 20 years, and the third strike to 25 years, down from a life sentence.
The bill allows prisoners deemed “low-risk” to earn early release credits by taking part in anti-recidivism activities — i.e., taking a 30-day course could earn a prisoner 10 days of early release to bail. The bill grants more leeway to judges to sentence nonviolent offenders to prison terms below the mandatory minimums.
But for all its changes, advocates of the bill concede it had to be watered down to win over enough senators to allow it to pass overwhelmingly. Initial drafts of the bill would have applied to a much larger share of the prison population. Objections from some Republicans whittled the scope of the bill to a more narrow list of offenses.
People who have committed any of a long list of crimes will not be eligible to earn early release credits. These crimes range from female genital mutilation to inciting a prison riot to arson. Earlier versions of the bill also would have given judges more power to impose a lighter sentence if they could show a defendant’s criminal history or risk of recidivism was exaggerated.
“Obviously there were a lot of compromises that had to be made along the way,” said Utah Sen. Mike Lee. “But I feel very good about the bill. If it passes into law it will do a lot of good for our country.”
While providing relief for nonviolent drug offenses is one of the key aims of the legislation, fentanyl traffickers are excluded from earning time credits in the final version.
Lee said there are commitments from 79 of the 100 senators to vote for the First Step Act, and that number will likely go up as undecided senators make up their minds. It should also easily pass the House and be signed into law by President Trump.
But first it must get over the hurdle of Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy. Initially, the plan was for the Senate to move to a vote on the bill through unanimous consent on Thursday. Kennedy told BuzzFeed News he will block that consent, meaning the bill could linger through next week or potentially over Christmas. Kennedy said he is blocking a fast-tracking of the bill because he needs time to read and digest it.