House easily passes prison reform bill backed by Trump

House easily passes prison reform bill backed by Trump
© Greg Nash

The House overwhelming passed a bipartisan prison reform bill Tuesday afternoon amid objections from some Democrats and groups on the left that it doesn’t go far enough.

Lawmakers approved the First Step Act by a 360-59 vote, including the support of 134 Democrats, to incentivize inmates to complete prison programs that reduce their likelihood to reoffend after they are released.

The legislation, authored by Reps. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsHouse Republicans confident there won't be a government shutdown Lawmakers move to award posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to Aretha Franklin Connect Beltway to America to get federal criminal justice reform done MORE (R-Ga.) and Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesMeek Mill: I now feel a responsibility to 'help change the world' Connect Beltway to America to get federal criminal justice reform done Dem lawmaker labels Trump the ‘Grand Wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave’ MORE (D-N.Y.), provides $50 million to the Bureau of Prisons annually for the next five years for prison programs including education, drug treatment and job skills training.

Under the bill, which is supported by the White House but faces an uncertain future in the Senate, prisoners would be allowed to earn time credits for completing programs and then use those credits to serve the remaining days of their sentences in a halfway house or home confinement.

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The bill also requires inmates to be housed within 500 miles of their families when possible and prohibits the shackling of female inmates while they are pregnant, giving birth or in postpartum recovery. 

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 74 other groups have written the committee in opposition to the bill, expressing concerns that its required risk assessment will prevent prisoners from being eligible to cash in their earned time. The groups also object to the number of inmates are excluded from earning time credits, including immigrants.

But a key reason some Democrats are opposing the bill is because it lacks provisions that reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences. Meaningful criminal justice reform, they say, must include sentencing reform. 

“It is unfortunate that after waiting nearly 1 1/2 years to take up the issue of criminal justice reform, the majority was unwilling to subject H.R. 5682 to a single legislative hearing, or even bother to obtain a [Congressional Budget Office] score so we could understand its impact,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Judiciary panel, said on the floor Tuesday.

“I also do not believe we can simply accept, as a reason not to change our sentencing laws, opposition to sentencing reform by a Trump Administration that changes its legislative positions on a near-daily basis and that has already done so much to weaken and undermine the criminal justice system.” 

The White House in February said it does not see a path forward for criminal justice reform and is instead throwing its support behind prison reform. At a summit on prison reform last week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE called on Congress to send him a bill to sign.

Frustrated supporters of the House proposal say Democrats shouldn’t hold out on passing meaningful reform just because they’re not getting everything they want.

“Those who chose to vote 'no' today, my question is this: Is it OK to make progress on many other things, but on this one say no?” Collins asked while debating the bill on the floor.

“Say no to a family who has a family member in prison who could get treatment and get help … is it OK to say no to those folks?”

Collins said he, too, wants to see sentencing reform at some point, but the First Step Act is a meaningful step the president will sign right now.

In an op-ed in The Washington Post Monday, Obama-era Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderFBI, Justice Dept plan to redact Russia documents despite Trump order for full declassification: report Dem lawmakers slam Trump’s declassification of Russia documents as ‘brazen abuse of power’ Dem lawmaker jabs Trump call for transparency by asking for his tax returns MORE said in order “to reform America’s prisons, we must change the laws that send people to them in the first place.”

“Anything less represents a failure of leadership,” he said.

Collins shot back at those remarks Tuesday.

“I just have one question for the attorney general, where were you when you held the office?” he asked. “Why didn’t you do something then, when it was within your grasp? Why did you turn a deaf ear to the cries of families in need … and now weigh in on something that Congressman Jeffries and many others have put their heart and lives into and weigh in and say it’s not enough?”

The bill is, however, receiving backing from #cut50, a criminal justice reform advocacy group led by Van Jones, the CNN host and former adviser to former President Obama.

"Our long-term goal is decarceration, but when this bill passes, it will send a strong signal that our prisons should be places for rehabilitation that give people the skills and tools needed to succeed on the outside,” said Jessica Jackson Sloan, the group’s co-founder and national director. 

But the legislation seems to face an uphill climb through the Senate, at least for the foreseeable future

Sens. John CornynJohn CornynKey GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand Trump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle GOP mulls having outside counsel question Kavanaugh, Ford MORE (R-Texas) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDem vows to probe 'why the FBI stood down' on Kavanaugh Senate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh Senate Dems sue Archives to try to force release of Kavanaugh documents MORE (D-R.I.) have introduced a companion bill, but it’s unlikely to get a markup in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Judiciary Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley extends deadline for Kavanaugh accuser to decide on testifying Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Kavanaugh accuser seeks additional day to decide on testimony MORE (R-Iowa) is pushing his own criminal justice reform bill with Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGrassley to administration: You must consult Congress on refugee cap Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment MORE (D-Ill.) that reduces certain mandatory minimum prison sentences. In a statement late last month, Grassley said sentencing reform provisions are necessary if prison reform is to move through the Senate.

Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, said she expects the bill to evolve in the Senate. 

"There will be intense negotiating, and we are hopeful some sentencing reforms will emerge to complete this package,” she said. “But given the massive public support for these reforms, and today’s overwhelming House vote, failure on the Senate side is not an option. And everybody knows it.”