WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday the Senate would take up a long-awaited bipartisan bill that aims to reduce the number of people in the nation’s crowded prisons.
“At the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation that has been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the revised criminal justice bill this month,” the Kentucky Republican said. He added he would turn to it as early as the end of the week.
An unusual coalition of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, civil rights groups and the White House have rallied around criminal justice reform pushing for action on the latest effort: a Senate bill called the “First Step Act.”
Despite the bipartisan push to act on the criminal justice bill, the effort had seemed to stall in the Senate. Pressure mounted in recent days with President Donald Trump urging McConnell to call up the bill for a vote.
The measure, however, faced fierce opposition from some Republicans, including Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who said it would free too many prisoners, such as violent felons.
Cotton said he looked forward to debating a revised measure and introducing amendments to address his concerns, including the early release of felons who commit certain crimes.
“Unfortunately, the bill still has major problems and allows early release for many categories of serious, violent criminals,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
Republican leaders had said there wasn’t enough support within the party to pass the measure. But support continued to grow in recent days. By Monday, at least 34 senators, including Democrats and Republicans, had signed onto the bill.
“We have the votes. We’re very confident,” George Hartmann, a spokesman from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told USA TODAY Tuesday.
Grassley, one of the lead sponsors, and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois had launched a full-court press to push for action on the measure.
The effort is not new. Republican and Democratic lawmakers had pushed for years to reform the criminal justice system, but efforts stalled often over issues such as mandatory minimum sentencing.
The House passed a criminal justice reform bill earlier this year, but advocates complained it didn’t address the controversial issue of mandatory minimum sentencing.
The Senate bill among other things includes provisions that give judges more discretion in sentencing offenders for nonviolent crime, particularly drug offenders, and aims to improve rehabilitation programs for former prisoners.
“We’ve never been closer,” Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said last Tuesday at a panel hosted by the Washington Post Live Center. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t take a vote. This bill needs to pass this year.”
Supporters of criminal justice reform said action on legislation is long overdue.
“Mass incarceration is probably one of the largest civil rights atrocities that currently exist,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Some advocates complain the Senate bill doesn’t go far enough to address concerns, such as systemic racism that leads to unfair sentencing.
Meanwhile, some applaud the effort to at least begin overhauling the criminal justice system.
“What’s important is that if Washington does it, I think it encourages more states to do it as well,” Chettiar said.
With a busy legislative agenda, McConnell said senators should be prepared to work during the holiday week if necessary.
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