Prison Reform Gets New Life in House With Dem Backing

Some Senate Republicans strongly opposed, source says

A prison cell block is seen at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma
A prison cell block is seen at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma / Getty Images
May 8, 2018

After several weeks of stalled negotiations, a proposal for reform to America’s prisons was floated Monday in the House of Representatives, but may yet face substantial opposition from Republicans in the Senate.

The FIRST STEP Act, sponsored by Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D., N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R., Ga.), would substantially overhaul the process of exiting prison, and potentially allow thousands of current offenders to be released, according to Axios.

The release would be facilitated by a restructuring of good-time credits, earned for good behavior and which allow prisoners to be released early. Retroactive application of a good-time credit expansion could see as many as 4,000 federal prisoners sent home, according to a left-leaning reform group's national director.

The bill would additionally allow prisoners to complete sentences in halfway homes or on house arrest, and mandate the provision of certain services to female prisoners while banning shackling during childbirth.

The FIRST STEP Act has moved forward in part with the backing of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has been a major voice pushing for prison reform in recent months. According to Politico, Kushner was a major force behind the Jeffries-Collins bill, and is likely to be important in garnering it support among Congressional conservatives and in the White House.

The bill also has the backing of a number of conservative-leaning organizations, most of them within the sphere of the libertarian, pro-reform Koch brothers. One group, Freedom Partners, launched an ad campaign concurrently with the bill roll-out, describing it as designed to "create new, evidence-based risk and needs assessment tools" to better facilitate reentry.

In spite of this support, the FIRST STEP Act may face stiff opposition in the Senate, a Republican Senate aide told the Free Beacon. The aide suggested that a number of senators—including Sens. Cotton (Ark.), Hatch (Utah), Kennedy (La.), Purdue (Ga.) and Sasse (Neb.)—were likely to oppose the bill, based on their past opposition to sentencing reform. He further suggested that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) may also work to kill it if sent to the Senate.

These objections stem from a number of perceived issues with the Jeffries-Collins proposal, including the reduction in sentences facilitated by the good-time credit overhaul and the house arrest proposal. The Republican Senate aide pointed further to requirements that the Attorney General provide an individualized assessment of all 180,000 federal prisoners, including serious life offenders, in just six months; and a requirement that prisoners not be incarcerated more than 500 miles from their place of residence, which would limit the ability of the federal government to incarcerate high-risk prisoners like the Boston Bomber at high-security sites like ADX Florence.

Legislators on the left may also take umbrage with the bill for conspicuously lacking substantive reforms to federal sentencing, a priority that may stay the vote of liberals like House Judiciary Ranking Member Rep. Jerry Nadler (D., N.Y.), Politico noted. While prison reform focuses on improving access to education and reentry opportunities, sentencing reform would cut actual sentences, a policy shift cheered by those who see America's mass incarceration regime as problematic.

This bifurcation of sentencing and prison reform is driven in no small part by the White House. President Donald Trump has shown himself strongly sympathetic to prison reform, but leading administration figures like Attorney General Jeff Sessions have largely nixed proposals to loosen federal sentences.

Sentencing reform has some proponents among Senate Republicans. Over opposition from Sessions and five Republican votes, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted a sentencing reform bill out of committee in February. It is unclear if that bill, led by Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), will make it to the Senate's floor—Grassley has pushed for it, but McConnell is not expected to be sympathetic.