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Senate overwhelmingly backs overhaul of criminal justice system

Congress overwhelmingly passed the First Step Act, a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system, on Dec. 20, representing a major pivot by the GOP. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a sweeping overhaul of the criminal justice system, after a remarkable political shift 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 dozens of Republicans, including longtime holdout 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.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) tried to allay those concerns shortly before the final vote, stressing that Trump “wants to be tough on crime, but fair on crime” — and had told him personally that he had his “pen ready to sign this bill.”

And minutes after the vote, Trump tweeted his congratulations to the Senate, stressing that his “job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes.”

“This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it,” he wrote on Twitter. “In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!”

The product of years of negotiations, the legislation represents a major pivot for the GOP, which decades ago embraced a law-and-order rallying cry and war on drugs campaign as crucial to winning votes. But as crime rates have dropped and states have pursued cost-effective ways to cut the prison population, Congress has favored changes to the system, with GOP lawmakers arguing for rehabilitating some offenders rather than longtime incarceration.

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. The latter would affect about 2,000 current federal inmates.

It also overhauls the federal prison system to help inmates earn reduced sentences and lower recidivism rates. A different version passed the House this year, so the House would have to pass the latest draft before it can be sent to Trump for his signature. The House is expected to endorse that bill when it comes up for a likely vote later this week, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has expressed support for the legislation.

The bill, which does not cover state jails and prisons, would through reductions in sentencing do the equivalent of shaving a collective 53,000 years off the sentences of federal inmates over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office — though some advocacy groups dispute this figure. There were about 181,000 federal inmates as of Dec. 13, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

The bill received a major boost last month when Trump endorsed it as “reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off our streets.” His thinking was heavily influenced by his son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner, who has long advocated sentencing restructuring and marshaled endorsements of the bill from a diverse coalition including law enforcement, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

During debate Tuesday, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) emphasized the provisions in the legislation aimed at reducing recidivism.

“We’re not just talking about money,” Cornyn said. “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.

Those included a measure from Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) that would have barred people convicted of various offenses, including certain sex crimes, from being able to qualify for reduced sentences. The legislation has a number of exclusions, but Cotton and Kennedy wanted to add more crimes to the list, such as coercing a minor for sexual activity.

Lawmakers unanimously voted to include in the package a proposal from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) to exclude more categories of crimes from being eligible for sentencing reductions, and ensure the freedom and involvement of faith-based groups in elements of prison overhaul.

The legislation appeared stalled until last week, when McConnell agreed to let the bill come to a vote. Supporters, including Grassley, had been publicly lobbying McConnell for months to let the bill move forward, pledging that it would easily pass.

After McConnell voted for the bill, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a strong proponent of the bill, shook the leader’s hand.

Some Democrats had pushed for a more generous bill, and similar yet more expansive legislation under the Obama administration was scuttled by Republicans.

“It is a compromise of a compromise,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said in a statement Monday announcing her support for the bill. “We ultimately need to make far greater reforms if we are to right the wrongs that exist in our criminal justice system.”

Although Trump ran as a “tough on crime” candidate, he has shown a willingness to right what he considers wrongs in the criminal justice system.

In June, he commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a woman serving a life term for nonviolent offenses, after meeting with reality television star and socialite Kim Kardashian West to discuss the case. Kushner facilitated the meeting.

Johnson, 63, was convicted in Tennessee in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison on federal drug and money-laundering charges. She was denied clemency by the Obama administration in January 2017 in one of the administration’s last batches of clemency denials. In a statement, the White House noted that Johnson was a great-grandmother who had served almost 22 years for a first-time offense.

Speaking on the floor, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) called the legislation “perhaps the most significant bill to reform our criminal justice system in nearly a decade.”

“The First Step Act takes modest but important steps to remedy some of the most troubling injustices within our sentencing laws and our prison system,” Leahy said. “It is my hope that this bill represents not just a single piece of legislation, but a turning point in how Congress views its role in advancing criminal justice.”

Seung Min Kim and Paul Kane contributed to this report.