US House Passes 1st Major Criminal Justice Reform Measure in 8 Years

The rate of incarceration in the U.S. is the world’s highest, leading to what many lawmakers and policy analysts say is a nationwide imprisonment epidemic. But the beginning of the end of that epidemic started Tuesday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, told VOA.

A bipartisan prison reform bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a 360-59 vote “strikes an opening blow against the overcriminalization of the nation,” Jeffries, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said.

U.S. President Donald Trump said “the strong bipartisan vote paces the way for action by the Senate.” Last week, Trump endorsed the bill at a White House summit on prison reform, saying, “Our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens.”

If the bill reaches the president’s desk for a signature, it would provide $50 million in funding for five years to provide job training, education and substance abuse treatment for prisoners as well as a number of quality-of-life measures aimed at reducing chronically high rates of recidivism among former inmates.

Contentious issue

But the contentious issue of criminal justice reform has split Democrats and Republicans within their own parties, possibly jeopardizing the bill’s chances of passage as it heads to the U.S. Senate.

In a letter to colleagues last week, Democratic Senators Kamala Harris, Dick Durbin and Cory Booker joined two House Democratic colleagues, Representatives John Lewis and Sheila Jackson Lee, in saying the bill could not be implemented effectively and could possibly lead to prison privatization.

Jeffries told VOA many of the arguments against the First Step Act “were anchored in falsehoods.”

He added the legislation passed today “is a first step towards eradicating the cancer of mass incarceration”  a move also welcomed by many House Republicans.

“Rather than allowing the cycle of crime to continue, this legislation takes a practical, intelligent approach to rehabilitation,” House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, said, speaking of the bill’s reform measures on the House floor Tuesday.

The bill represents the first significant criminal justice reform effort since the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a measure that reduced the disparity in the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine required to trigger mandatory sentences for drug offenders.

But the First Step Act faces tough odds in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of senators is pushing for more comprehensive criminal justice reform.

The rival Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, championed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, promises lower sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders and gives judges greater discretion at sentencing, among other provisions.

Nearly two dozen senators have signed on to the bill, but the White House opposes the measure.   

“We need a more strategic approach to drug sentencing that focuses law enforcement resources on violent career criminals and drug kingpins instead of nonviolent, lower-level offenders,” Grassley wrote in a recent op-ed for Fox News.

Sentencing laws

Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, instituted in the 1970s and 1980s, are widely blamed for a sharp rise in the number of U.S. prisoners in recent decades.

Though the number of U.S. prisoners has fallen in recent years, nearly half of the 184,000 inmates currently held in federal correction facilities are serving time for drug offenses, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

The divide in Congress over prison reform mirrors an unusual schism among longtime advocates of overhauling America’s criminal justice system.

At one end of the spectrum is a coalition of more than 100 advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who say the bill falls short of bringing about “meaningful” criminal justice reform.

In a letter on Monday, the group urged House members to vote down the bill, saying it fails to address “racial disparities, draconian mandatory sentences, persistent overcrowding, lack of rehabilitation, and the exorbitant costs of incarceration.”

At the other end of the divide is an unlikely grouping of more than 70 other organizations that support the legislation, ranging from Koch Industries, headed by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that opposes mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Kevin Ring, the group’s president, says the prospect of sentencing reform under the Trump administration is slim, leaving prison reform as the only viable alternative.

“What we don’t want to do is make the perfect the enemy of the good: kill a bill that has modest reforms that will help real people just because we’re waiting for something that’s not likely to happen in this administration,” Ring said.

Ring said he hopes negotiations in the Senate can lead to a compromise between the First Step Act and the bill advocated by Grassley.

At the White House summit last week, Trump urged lawmakers to “work out their differences” and send him a reform bill to sign.

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