Cotton Blasts Prison Reform Bill for Potentially Granting Fentanyl Dealers Early Release

Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) said Tuesday that the proposed FIRST STEP Act, which would reform the criminal justice system, is too generous to incarcerated felons and should be voted down or amended.

Cotton joined "The Hugh Hewitt Show" to articulate his disagreement with Republicans such as Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who introduced the bill in the Senate.

"The bill that Mike Lee and a few other Republicans have regrettably introduced in the Senate would let thousands, thousands, of serious repeat and violent felons out of prison in a matter of weeks or months after it passes," Cotton said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has not committed to bringing FIRST STEP to the floor, and the New York Times reported the legislation is unlikely to come to a vote in the lame duck session.

Cotton went after the bill's "time credits" system, which proponents of FIRST STEP say is different from simple early release.

"They claim that it's not early release, that it's—I think their latest term is ‘time credits for participation in recidivism reduction programming and other productive activities,'" he said. "Whatever word games they want to play is going to be cold comfort to the victims of the crimes that these felons are going to commit when they are released from prison, and even they have to admit that the thousands of people that will be released immediately, within weeks or months from prison, will participate in no such programs."

"That's to say nothing of its slashing of three-strikes laws, and reductions of sentences in the future for serious repeat fentanyl and other opioid dealers, in the middle of a drug epidemic in this country," Cotton added.

The senator described the effects of FIRST STEP with the example of fentanyl dealers, who are able to qualify for an earlier release if there is no proof that the drugs they sold led to death or serious injury.

Under current law, if you are a second time offender with 400 grams of fentanyl, which is enough to kill 50,000 people, about the size of Conway, Arkansas, you currently would be sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years. If you behave yourself in prison and you participate in drug rehabilitation if you yourself are a drug user, you could get out in maybe 17 to 18 years. Under this bill, by shortening the mandatory minimums from 20 to 15 on the front end, and adding new early-release provisions that can shorten the sentence by up to a third on the back end, you're looking at getting out in maybe eight to nine years.

Cotton went through other violent offenders who could have their sentences cut short with FIRST STEP, and he said this might be misplaced compassion.

"They claim that they have compassion for these criminals. I frankly have a lot more compassion for the victims of sex offenses and car-jackings," he said.

Urging caution, Cotton said releasing such a large group of federal prisoners will have consequences.

"It's almost a guaranteed, unfortunate reality that when you release thousands of violent serious and repeat offenders within weeks or months of the bill passing, that some of them are going to commit violent crimes once they're released that they would not have committed if they were still serving the sentence to which they were sentenced years ago. That's just a cold, stark reality," he said.

"I strongly support the concept that we should be giving prisoners more opportunities to earn a GED, to earn a trade, to participate in the kind of training and education, often faith-based, that will help them get back on their feet and not be a menace to society once they leave prison," Cotton added. "There is no reason why you have to combine those laudable goals with shortening sentences and releasing early some of the most serious felons in federal prison."

After Hewitt asked about amending the bill, Cotton outlined what he would do to fix it.

"It's always possible to amend the bill, if they drop the sentencing reduction and the early release provisions and focus on helping prisoners get on their feet once they have paid their debt to society and served their sentence," Cotton said.