Changes Coming for Federal Criminal Justice System

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WASHINGTON – A sweeping bill reforming the federal criminal justice system is on its way to passage after winning key votes in Congress this week. 

It’s the result of a bipartisan effort — that until recently seemed like a long shot. 

The group of lawmakers working on this really thought their bill was going nowhere. But after getting support from the White House, things started to click in place. 

“None of us expected an 87-12 vote,” says Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

Holding up the final tally, Iowa’s Sen. Grassley said passage of the First Step Act is a victory for justice and bipartisan compromise.

“When people trust each other you can sit down and get legislation,” he adds.

The wide-ranging bill restricts mandatory sentencing for non-violent offenders, allows some inmates to earn early release with good behavior, and supports prison programs to prepare inmates for life on the outside. 

“Let me preface my remarks by telling you about the worst vote that i ever cast as a member of Congress,” says Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). 

The story of the First Step Act dates back to the mid 80’s when Congress began passing “tough on crime” bills to fight epidemic drug abuse and violence.  

“And it backfired,” continues Sen. Durbin. 

The Illinois Democratic senator says it led to more drugs on the street, overcrowded prisons, and disproportionately impacted minorities.

Over the last decade he has fought to change course. The Democratic leader found an ally in Utah Republican Mike Lee.

“We knew that it would be difficult,” says Sen. Lee. 

The senators’ reform bill languished in Congress.

“Then came a break through that I never expected: the election of Donald Trump as president,” Sen. Durbin says. 

President Trump praised the First Step Act and pushed for a vote.

“Convicted child molesters should not be allowed early release,” says Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). 

Arkansas Sen. Cotton led the fight against the bill. 

“It will help reduce crime,” says Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). 

But Sen. Cotton was overcome by a coalition of lawmakers like Tennessee Sen. Alexander, who believes it does protect public safety while also bringing fairness to the system. 

The First Step Act only applies to the federal system, which accounts for about 10 percent of the U.S. prison population. 

Supporters say the title reflects the truth: this is a first step and they hope to continue to push for changes in the criminal justice system. 

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