Individuals in Administration Circulating Major Revision to FIRST STEP

Fearing GOP and LEO defection, some in admin shopping new bill

White House
White House / Getty Images
November 29, 2018

Amid concerns that the current version is unpopular with Senate Republicans and law enforcement officials, individuals within the administration are shopping a revised version of its criminal justice reform bill, the Washington Free Beacon has learned.

The FIRST STEP Act, a federal criminal justice reform proposal that would make sweeping changes to the federal prison system, has earned the backing a bipartisan group of legislators and the assent of President Donald Trump. But it has been waylaid on its way to the Resolute Desk by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).

This block is driven in large part by McConnell's desire not to split his caucus, which is fiercely dividedover the bill. Although a number of prominent conservatives back it—including Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa)—others, including Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.), have had harsh words for it.

At the same time, the bill has struggled to garner support from law enforcement, a key constituency of Trump's. Multiple law enforcement groups have criticized or openly rejected the bill, contending that its central plank—a new system of time credits which allow federal offenders early supervised release in exchange for completing recidivism training—is deeply flawed, and likely to release many dangerous criminals from federal detention.

Now, a law enforcement source close to the process has told the Free Beacon, the individuals within the administration have put together and are actively shopping an updated version of the bill, meant to assuage law enforcement's concerns and thereby help bring more of the GOP caucus on board.

Responding to this reporting, the White House denied that there is any attempt to alter the FIRST STEP Act at this late stage in the process.

"The President has endorsed the Senate compromise on the First Step Act, and the White House is not circulating any other version. All reporting to the contrary is false. The White House is committed to passing this legislation in the lame duck," Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley told the Free Beacon.

Conn Carroll, Communications Director for bill-author Lee, told the Free Beacon that the version of the bill being reported here was being distributed by "rogue elements within the DOJ," who have long opposed FIRST STEP.

The new version of the bill was indeed put together with consultation from the Department of Justice, which has been historically critical of FIRST STEP and which gave Cotton a critical analysis of the bill's most recent public text. That version, assembled in the past few days after heated debate among Senate Republicans, is now being circulated to law enforcement stakeholders to garner buy-in.

According to the source, the new bill does not change the underlying structure of the FIRST STEP Act. It preserves, for example, the time credit system as originally constructed. But it does rectify law enforcement's most serious concerns, expanding the long list of crimes for which an offender would be excluded from receiving early supervised release.

It also addresses issues with the bill's application to illegal immigrants, which a recent Center for Immigration Studies analysis concluded was problematic and incomplete in its present form.

It is not yet clear if the bill's major backers in the Senate, or others in the White House including key FIRST-STEP supporter Jared Kushner, would support a revised version.

UPDATE: This article was updated at 6:05 p.m. to include comments from the White House and Mike Lee Communications Director Conn Carroll.

Published under: White House