Leave it to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to jeopardize a wildly popular bipartisan proposal.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that Republicans are in need of a big policy accomplishment, and criminal justice reform is ripe. I assume the president reads my columns and found this one persuasive. Just a few days later, President Donald Trump announced he supports the First Step Act. The bill — sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley and a bipartisan crowd of 24 other senators — would bolster re-entry programs at federal prisons and reform some sentencing requirements.
The outlook was promising. Republicans and Democrats were speaking out in favor of the legislation, and McConnell said he was open to having a vote before the end of the year. But now it looks as if the vote on the First Step Act might fall victim to the extreme law-and-order faction of the majority party.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has appointed himself the lead defender of the American incarceration crisis. He is organizing opposition to the First Step Act among Republicans, saying the legislation is being hastily crammed through, and suggesting it would put cop killers back on the street.
Neither of those claims is true. The First Step Act and similar bills have been available to the public for months. And no violent criminals would automatically be released from prison if the legislation is enacted. The main purpose of the bill is to expand strategies that are proven to reduce recidivism rates among those leaving prison.
Cotton represents a segment of the conservative movement that is tough on crime, no matter what, for the sake of toughness itself. They hold strong even when their policies clearly fall counter to other conservative values, like reducing spending and preserving families, both of which the First Step Act would do.
A version of the bill approved by the Republican-controlled House earlier this year would save the federal government more than $100 million over the next decade. The current version in the Senate, with stronger sentencing reform rules, could provide even bigger savings.
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The tough-on-crime status quo has locked up an unconscionable number of fellow Americans. More than 2 million people are behind bars at prisons and local jails around the country. Even as the crime rate has plummeted over the past 30 years, the number of people incarcerated has continued to grow.
One of every 28 American children has a parent in prison, according to the nonprofit Brennan Center. Those children are destined to far worse educational and economic outcomes than children without incarcerated parents. Where are the family values in that?
Despite resistance, activist groups behind the left-right criminal justice coalition are taking action to move the First Step Act forward.
On the left, the American Civil Liberties Union is running a radio ad in Kentucky, urging constituents to call McConnell and ask for a vote on the First Step Act. The narrator says, “Mitch McConnell is preventing a bipartisan bill, agreed to by Republicans, Democrats and President Trump, from even getting a vote.”
And on the right, Americans for Prosperity is running ads and sending mail to Iowa voters, promoting the legislation and thanking Grassley for his leadership. Drew Klein, the group’s director in Iowa, told me the bill will “reduce crime and recidivism, save money, and help people get a much-needed second chance in life.”
Is there hope yet for common sense, bipartisan criminal justice reform? Grassley thinks so. He’s one of the leading advocates in Washington, D.C. for federal sentencing reform. He told reporters last week he’s still pushing for a vote before the end of the session.
“We have a real opportunity here to enact the most significant criminal justice reform in a generation,” Grassley said.
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