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 CollinsGOP lawmakers jockey for positions as managers Impeachment obliterates tinges of comity in House Overnight Defense: Mattis downplays Afghanistan papers | 'We probably weren't that good at' nation building | Judiciary panel approves two impeachment articles | Stage set for House vote next week MORE (R-Ga.) and Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay 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 TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' 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 HolderHolder rips into William Barr: 'He is unfit to lead the Justice Department' The shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley Pelosi refers to Sinclair's Rosen as 'Mr. Republican Talking Points' over whistleblower question 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 CornynTrump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn On The Money: Trump, China announce 'Phase One' trade deal | Supreme Court takes up fight over Trump financial records | House panel schedules hearing, vote on new NAFTA deal On The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA MORE (R-Texas) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats rip Barr over IG statement: 'Mouthpiece' for Trump Trump brings pardoned soldiers on stage at Florida fundraiser: report Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill 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 urges White House to help farmers in year-end tax talks The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday MORE (R-Iowa) is pushing his own criminal justice reform bill with Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial Lawmakers introduce bill taxing e-cigarettes to pay for anti-vaping campaigns Senators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report 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.”