Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is expected to demand a vote in the coming days on legislation that would further restrict a broad overhaul of the criminal justice system, in an attempt to derail the popular bill backed by President Trump.
Cotton, along with Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), are drafting an amendment to the First Step Act that would bar people convicted of various offenses, including certain sex crimes, from being able to qualify for reduced sentences. Those crimes are not explicitly listed in the new 149-page draft of the bill released Wednesday, although its authors have disputed claims that violent criminals would be prematurely released under their legislation.
In a summary of their amendment obtained by The Washington Post, Cotton and Kennedy want to add seven specific offenses to the list of crimes that would not be able to earn time credits that eases prison sentences. They include: coercing a minor for sexual activity, carjacking with intent to cause death or injury; assaulting a law enforcement officer; harming someone while robbing a bank; helping a federal prisoner escape, committing a hate crime; and assaulting a minor.
To make their case, the two Senate Republicans point to former NASCAR driver Richard Crawford, convicted earlier this year of trying to entice a 12-year-old girl. Cotton and Kennedy argue that in their reading of the bill, Crawford could have his current prison sentence cut by nearly a third.
Cotton and Kennedy’s amendment could be one of a number of potentially uncomfortable votes in the Senate, where the White House-backed criminal justice bill has attracted support from a broad coalition of lawmakers, although vehemently opposed by a handful of conservative senators.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), as well as other senators who have worked for weeks to revise the sentencing and prison overhaul, released the latest draft of the bill on Wednesday. The changes are endorsed by several powerful law enforcement groups and were critical to winning over several GOP senators once skeptical of the effort, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and David Perdue (R-Ga.).
“Over the last several years, we’ve expanded support for comprehensive criminal justice reform by listening to stakeholders and lawmakers to strike a balance that reduces crime and recidivism, and the associated taxpayer burden, while ensuring that dangerous and career criminals face steep consequences for their actions,” Grassley said. “Today’s update represents the latest in our effort to achieve this goal.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who is also closely involved in writing the bill, projected Wednesday about 80 senators will ultimately support the bill. That figure, Graham said, is “realistic, but on the optimistic end of realistic.”
Senators added well over a dozen offenses to the “ineligible prisoners” list, such as committing a felony while part of a criminal street gang, escaping from prison and failing to register as a sex offender. It also bars fentanyl traffickers and people convicted of a federal crime while brandishing a gun from earning time credits to reduce their sentences.
The Senate could turn to the bill later this week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants senators to cooperate so the votes on the bill doesn’t consume more floor time than needed, although he said Cotton and other opponents are entitled to at least offer amendments.