This week, the United States (U.S.) Senate approved the most sweeping prison reform bill in decades, voting to cut sentences of tens of thousands of inmates while also boosting access to programs designed to keep them from ending up back behind bars again. The measure cleared with an 87 – 12 vote and marks a major bipartisan victory for President Trump, who had pressured Republican leaders to pass it this year, before lawmakers closed down Congress. The bill still needs approval in the House, where a vote is expected before the end of this week.
Called the First Step Act, the legislation will expand prison programs designed to reduce recidivism and allow some prisoners to earn credits toward early release by taking part in those programs. The bill also reduces some maximum mandatory sentences, such as ending the three-strikes life-in-prison penalty and replacing it with a 25-year maximum. Backers said the credits would earn inmates a faster opportunity to enter a halfway house or be put on home detention.
Senator Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican who had made a crusade out of reforming sentencing, said “This prison and sentencing reform bill is a much-needed first step toward shifting our focus to rehabilitation and re-entry of offenders, rather than taking every person who ever made a mistake with drugs, locking them up, and throwing away the key.”
The core of the deal was written by Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Senator Richard Durbin, a senior Democrat. The bill applies only to federal prisons, which hold far fewer people than state prisons. It includes new rules on keeping inmates in facilities close to their homes where possible and pushes for them to be put in home confinement for the maximum time allowed.
An early version of the bill would have released an average of 53,000 federal inmates a year over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which is more than a quarter of the current inmate population.