Senate Republicans Join With Dems In Show Of Solidarity Over Prison Reform Bill

Matt Briscoe, Texas Take News

The United States Senate on overwhelmingly passed a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system on Tuesday, after a change of heart from Republicans who voted in large numbers to save money by reducing prison sentences, handing a rare bipartisan victory to President Trump.

The First Step Act passed on a vote of 87 to 12, with GOP Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) joining all 49 members of the Democratic caucus to approve legislation that even some GOP supporters fear could leave them vulnerable to charges of being soft on crime.

“We can be smarter on crime and produce better results at a lower cost, and that message and those things that have followed have been enormously successful,” said Texas Senator John Cornyn.

The bill would revise several sentencing laws, such as reducing the “three strikes” penalty for drug felonies from life behind bars to 25 years and retroactively limiting the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

“This bill is our opportunity to make meaningful changes in our criminal justice system. An opportunity to begin fixing a problem that plagues our country and our opportunity to take a model that’s been working in the states for more than a decade and use it to benefit all Americans.”

The Senate version of the bill overhauls the federal prison system to help inmates earn reduced sentences and lower recidivism rates. A similar bill version passed through the House this year, and this Senate version heads back to House for consideration before it can be sent to Trump for his signature. The House is expected to pass the Senate’s version when it comes up for a likely vote later this week. Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has expressed support for the legislation.

“We’re not just talking about money,” Cornyn said during floor debate on Tuesday. “We’re talking about human potential. We’re investing in the men and women who want to turn their lives around once they’re released from prison, and we’re investing in so doing in stronger and more viable communities, and we’re investing tax dollars into a system that helps produce stronger citizens.”

Before the final vote, the bill’s supporters fended off several amendments considered “legislative poison pills” that they said were designed to kill the bipartisan compromise that was been carefully negotiated among Democratic and GOP lawmakers, as well as the Trump administration.

The legislation seemed to be stalled until last week, when McConnell decided to throw Mr. Trump a bone by letting the bill come to a vote in the Senate. Supporters, including Judiciary committee chair Chuck Grassley, had been working McConnell for months to let the bill move forward, pledging it would easily pass.

Democrats pushed forward for a more generous bill, and similar yet more expansive legislation under the Obama administration was beaten down by Republicans.

On the final Senate version, Senator Cornyn said “This bill is our opportunity to make meaningful changes in our criminal justice system. An opportunity to begin fixing a problem that plagues our country and our opportunity to take a model that’s been working in the states for more than a decade and use it to benefit all Americans.’

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