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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 CollinsLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor MORE (R-Ga.) and Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesDemocrats seek staffer salary boost to compete with K Street Congress tiptoes back to normality post-pandemic White House to Democrats: Get ready to go it alone on infrastructure 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.

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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.

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.” 

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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 TrumpWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Poll: 30 percent of GOP voters believe Trump will 'likely' be reinstated this year Black Secret Service agent told Trump it was offensive to hold rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth: report 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 HolderObama planning first post-2020 fundraiser Democratic group launches seven-figure ad campaign on voting rights bill Biden: 'Simply wrong' for Trump DOJ to seek journalists' phone records 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 CornynThe Senate is where dreams go to die Federal government to observe Juneteenth holiday on Friday Joe Manchin keeps Democrats guessing on sweeping election bill MORE (R-Texas) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseCentrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle Lawmakers rally around cyber legislation following string of attacks Graham, Whitehouse: Global transition to renewables would help national security 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyFive takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision On The Money: Yellen, Powell brush off inflation fears | Fed keeps rates steady, upgrades growth projections Overnight Health Care: US buying additional 200M Moderna vaccine doses | CureVac's COVID-19 vaccine failed in preliminary trial results | Grassley meets with House Dems on drug prices MORE (R-Iowa) is pushing his own criminal justice reform bill with Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinOvernight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 COVID-19 long-haulers press Congress for paid family leave Joe Manchin keeps Democrats guessing on sweeping election bill 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.”