White House-backed prison reform bill advances in House

White House-backed prison reform bill advances in House
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A White House-backed prison reform bill advanced in the House on Wednesday after winning bipartisan support in a 25-5 House Judiciary Committee vote.

The bill, called the First Step Act, seeks to offer more funding for prison programs and incentivize prisoners to complete the programs in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of inmates committing new crimes once released from prison.

Democrats and liberal groups that had pressed for more significant criminal justice reforms such as reductions to mandatory minimum sentences have been divided over the bill.

Reps. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsHicks repeatedly blocked by White House from answering Judiciary questions Judiciary chair: Hicks broke with Trump on accepting foreign dirt on opponents Democrats bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony MORE (R-Ga.) and Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesHouse Democrats close to finalizing border aid bill House hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments MORE (D-N.Y.) spent much of the past week in negotiations after committee Democrats pushed back against a number of conservative provisions in the legislation.

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After the committee vote, Collins said he’s confident there’s enough Democratic support to get the bill through the House and the Senate.

“They have their own process to go through. There may be some issues that we can then work on later, but I do feel this is one of the pieces of legislation that will be signed into law this year,” he said.

In a nod to Democrats, the bill approved in committee no longer includes language that would have allowed certain law enforcement officials and correctional officers to carry a concealed firearm in all 50 states.

And in another effort to win over Democratic supporters, the bill does include language creating more opportunities for prisoners to earn time credits by completing prison programs. They can then use those credits to serve the remaining days of their sentence in a halfway house or home confinement.

The bill, which authorizes $50 million a year for five years for the Bureau of Prisons to spend on programs like job training and education that reduce recidivism, clarifies current law to allow prisoners up to 54 days of credit for good behavior annually. The law was previously interpreted as only allowing prisoners to earn 47 days a year. 

Divisions could haunt the bill going forward, however.

Even after the changes, the legislation is opposed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 73 other groups.

It is backed by #cut50, a criminal justice reform advocacy group led by Van Jones, a CNN host and former adviser to President Obama.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee’s ranking member, said the bill is well intentioned but the committee should be working on legislation that includes sentencing reform.

He offered a motion to postpone the markup by one month to give committee members time to negotiate and markup sentencing reform legislation.

“When this committee began the effort to examine the problem of over-criminalization and mass incarceration six years ago, members on both sides of the aisle quickly realized the root of the problem was excessive sentencing in general and mandatory minimums in particular,” Nadler said.

Collins agreed that he would like to see sentencing reform, but said the bill has reached its peak in the political negotiations and now needs to move forward to help people.

“I agree with the gentleman, I would like to see sentencing reform move, but also I’m looking at this from a practical purpose of looking at families and saying let’s help them now,” Collins said.

Nadler’s motion was then voted down by the committee.

Progressives were able to win language prohibiting female prisoners from being shackled during pregnancy, childbirth and up to 12 weeks after a baby is born.

But the committee voted down an amendment offered by Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeEXCLUSIVE: Trump on reparations: 'I don't see it happening' Hicks repeatedly blocked by White House from answering Judiciary questions Democrats bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony MORE (D-Texas) to create a pilot program in federal prisons to allow female inmates who give birth while behind bars to live with their child in a prison housing unit until the child is 2 1/2 years old.

The committee did approve an amendment from Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzTop Trump ally says potential Amash presidential bid could be problematic in Michigan GOP moves to block provision banning use of Defense funds for border wall GOP lawmaker says some Trump officials contradicting Pompeo on Iran and al Qaeda MORE (R-Fla.) to expand a pilot youth mentorship program and a pilot program that gives prisoners the skills to train rescued and abandoned dogs. The bill would increase the programs from two years in 10 facilities to five years in at least 20 facilities.

Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertHouse Republican interrupted in reparations hearing by protester shouting 'you lie!' Annual 'Will on the Hill' pokes fun at 2020 race Democrats, Republicans in Congress spar over state abortion laws MORE (R-Texas) also had an amendment approved that would prevent faith-based organizations that want to offer prison programming from being discriminated against.

A bipartisan amendment from Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondHouse hearing marks historic moment for slavery reparations debate Lawmakers demand answers on Border Patrol data breach Democrats keep censure for Trump on the table MORE (D-La.), Collins, Jackson Lee, Jeffries and Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsDemocrats bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony Democrats fume, say Hicks declines to answer questions 2020 Democrats mark three years since Pulse nightclub shooting MORE (D-Fla.) was also approved to clarify that the legislative fix, which makes prisoners eligible for 54 days of good time instead of 47, applies to prisoners already serving sentences.

Sens. John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats give Trump trade chief high marks GOP senators divided over approach to election security GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks MORE (R-Texas) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSize of 2020 field too big even for Democratic enthusiasts, poll finds Overnight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Trump's UN pick faces Senate grilling MORE (D-R.I.) have a companion bill in the Senate.

Updated at 5:50 p.m.