White House-backed prison reform bill advances in House
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 Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (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.
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 Lee (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 Gaetz (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 Gohmert (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 Richmond (D-La.), Collins, Jackson Lee, Jeffries and Val Demings (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 Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have a companion bill in the Senate.
Updated at 5:50 p.m.