Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s excuse that the Senate lacks time to consider bipartisan prison and sentencing reforms rings lame, especially in a season when many Americans are working brutally long hours to meet the demands of their jobs.
More likely, McConnell wants to avoid a public fight inside his Republican caucus, a fight sparked by retrograde Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas and others unwilling to do the smallest thing to trim the huge costs — in dollars and human potential — that mass incarceration inflicts on our country.
McConnell should let the Senate vote. Given the support the bill has on both sides of the aisle, getting the 60 votes to end a filibuster should not be hard.
Then this Congress could claim a genuine bipartisan achievement.
And McConnell, master of obstruction, could claim some credibility for his recent appeal for bipartisanship from the Democratic House that takes office in January.
Speaker Paul Ryan says the Senate version of the First Step Act would zip through the House. President Donald Trump says he is eager to sign it. The package of modest reforms has support on the right from evangelical Christians, some big Republican donors, including the Kochs, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and on the left from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for American Progress and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Given that the United States imprisons a greater share of its people than any nation, the First Step Act is just that, a first step. But it’s taken years of debate and compromise to reach the consensus behind even that first step.
If this Congress fails to approve the bill, the new Congress would have to start all over. It could take still more years to reach another compromise and consensus. Meanwhile, real people, real families, real communities are suffering in ways that both Republicans and Democrats now serving in Congress are ready to relieve.
Contrary to opponents’ scary warnings, the First Step Act would not flood the streets with felons. It applies only to federal courts and prisons which account for 181,185 of the more than 2 million Americans who are in prison or jails.
If it becomes law, maybe 7,000 people now in prison could win release, through retroactive increases in time off for good behavior and a reduction in the punishment for crack cocaine offenses. Congress in 2010 reduced the huge disparity in punishments between crack and powdered cocaine. Because crack was more prevalent in black neighborhoods, the law had produced an imbalance that’s held up as evidence of race-based injustice.
In the future, federal judges would have the authority to skirt mandatory minimum sentences for more nonviolent drug offenders; an estimated 2,000 people a year would be eligible. The bill reduces some mandatory sentences, the “three strikes penalty” and the number of people who could receive extra years for committing a crime while holding a gun
.It pumps $375 million into job training and rehab programs and gives inmates the chance to earn 10 days in halfway houses or in-home supervision for every 30 days spent in rehab and job training. (Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions slashed funding for halfway houses and dismantled efforts to improve education in federal prisons.)
The bill also enshrines in law what many consider basic decency, such as providing women with free sanitary supplies and not shackling them while giving birth and not holding juveniles in solitary confinement.
The House overwhelmingly passed the bill earlier this year; bipartisan negotiators in the Senate have strengthened it. McConnell should put it to a vote.