Tag: First Step Act

Trump Considers Tying Criminal Justice Reforms to Border Wall Funding

The FIRST STEP Act might get shoved into an end-of-year spending bill.

There appears to be enough bipartisan backing to pass some modest reforms to federal prison conditions and mandatory minimums. Even the Fox Broadcasting Company has put out a statement of support for the FIRST STEP Act. Yet the bill is still stuck in the Senate, and the future of federal criminal justice reform legislation remains unsettlingly cloudy.

President Donald Trump formally announced his support for the law in November, and it has already passed the House. But Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) says it might not get a floor vote until January. McConnell is being pressured by fellow conservatives who back the bill and say they know they have the votes to pass it, but a group of Republicans is apparently trying to remove some “safety valve” provisions that permit judges to deviate from mandatory minimum sentence guidelines in some cases. That safety valve has the potential to reduce the sentences of more than 2,000 defendants a year.

Trump reportedly has a plan to get the law passed. According to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.), the president wants to shove the FIRST STEP Act into a year-end must-pass spending bill. Lawmakers just passed a stop-gap bill to continue funding the federal government for a couple more weeks. But that runs out right before Christmas.

Senator Graham tweets:

In other words, Trump is trying to tie the FIRST STEP Act to funding for his border wall. He wants $5 billion to start the wall. Senate Democrats have said that they’re willing to fund $1.6 billion for more border security but that they’re not going to give Trump all the money he wants. And obviously, once the Democrats take over the House they’re not going to give him the funds.

Republican Senators have introduced legislation to give Trump $25 billion for the wall, but that bill has no chance of going anywhere at all.

Trump’s tactic here is not terribly unusual. Year-end “must pass” omnibus spending bills have become a depository for unrelated legislation when congressional leaders are struggling to pull together votes. Some of these bills wouldn’t survive public scrutiny. Back in 2016, Reason.com explored several of the unrelated pieces of legislation that got dropped into a $1.1 trillion spending bill passed before the end of 2015.

So the big question here is whether the two demands can be separated. Could the FIRST STEP Act get tossed in the spending bill even if Democrats refuse any consideration of more border wall spending? And will Trump still support it in that case? If he’s stubborn, could that actually cause politically ambitious Democratic senators like Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to turn against the FIRST STEP Act so they can use it as a bludgeon against Trump?

UPDATE: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who had been opposing the FIRST STEP Act (after previously supporting it) says he’s back on board after an amendment was added to “exclude violent offenders from being released early.”

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Prison Reform On Uncertain Ground In 2018

One has to wonder if Congressional dysfunction has reached a breaking point.

Imagine legislation that was drafted with the help of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and, unsurprisingly, supported by President Trump himself. Imagine that this same bill is supported by such stalwarts of “The Resistance” as the Urban League and the Equal Justice Initiative, and also backed by prominent conservative groups such as FreedomWorks and the Faith and Freedom Coalition. The Koch brothers and Grover Norquist are advocates, and so is liberal commentator Vann Jones. In fact, imagine a bill so bipartisan that it passed even this deeply divided House on a 360–59 vote.

That legislation would be the “FIRST STEP Act,” a prison-reform bill. And, this being Washington in 2018, it is almost certainly not going to become law. Indeed, it looks doubtful that the Senate will even vote on it.

The FIRST STEP Act is hardly radical. It doesn’t reduce inmate sentences or otherwise deal with the intensely punitive approach to justice that has given the United States the world’s largest per capita prison population. Nor does it remedy the ongoing racial issues that continue to infect our criminal-justice system.

Instead, it would make a number of extremely modest humanitarian reforms to the way we treat prisoners. For example, it would make female health products more available in federal prisons and all but end the practice of shackling female inmates during childbirth. It would try to keep inmate families together by expanding visits, phone privileges teleconferencing, and opportunities to transfer to prisons closer to home. It would increase mental-health and substance-abuse treatment for inmates.

It would also provide a modest $250 million over five years for new inmate-education and -rehabilitation programs, and establish incentives (including time credits) for prisoners to participate. Prisons would also be required to conduct “risk assessments” of soon-to-be-released inmates and to tailor programs to meet these inmates’ needs.

Over the long run, most experts believe the legislation would save money. For example, studies have shown that every dollar spent providing needed mental-health and substance-abuse treatment to inmates ultimately saves taxpayers $1.27 to $5.47 in reduced crime and incarceration costs. One should always be skeptical of claims that government spending will save money, but this initiative clearly passes the common-sense test. Similarly, keeping families together is likely to reduce future welfare costs as well as crime. And since nearly all prisoners will eventually be released, programs to reduce recidivism are also likely to prove cost-effective.

So why is such a modest and humane bill almost certain to die?

In part, the FIRST STEP Act is a victim of the infighting and turf protection that helps explain Congress’s 18 percent favorability rating. Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over the bill, favors a much more expansive bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which he is co-sponsoring with Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. Grassley and Durbin are insisting that the FIRST STEP Act be rolled into their bill. But their legislation, which is indeed worthwhile, is being blocked by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell because the White House won’t sign off on some provisions. In the meantime, prison reform goes nowhere.

An even more significant roadblock is being provided by Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), who opposes nearly all efforts at criminal-justice reform. Senator Cotton, one of the few Americans who believe we have an underincarceration problem, in his words, has mounted an effective guerrilla campaign to undermine the bill’s support on the right. For example, Cotton is reportedly pushing law-enforcement groups to oppose the bill. His efforts have been drawing fruit. Recently the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association withdrew its endorsement of the bill after being pressured by Cotton’s office. Republicans, always fearful of being called “soft on crime,” will find it difficult to buck law enforcement.

Complaints about congressional gridlock are often exaggerated. The Founders intended legislating to be slow, deliberate, and challenging. But when even commonsense legislation with broad bipartisan support can’t so much as get a vote, one has to wonder if congressional dysfunction has reached a breaking point.

There is one possible way that this innovative bill could make it through Congress and onto the President’s desk. If determined members of the Senate refuse to vote in the upcoming confirmation of the candidate to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy there may be enough pressure to move the opposition out of the way.  Senators Cotton and McConnell both have vested interest in seeing a smooth confirmation hearing, and stand to lose critical local support in their home states and from the administration if their actions cause unnecessary delays or, worse, derail the confirmation entirely.

It’s a weak foundation  for prison reform advocates to stand on, but uncertain ground is better than having no place to stand at all.