The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday in favor of a bill aimed at improving federal prisons, advancing policy endorsed by the White House over the objections of advocates calling for more comprehensive legislation.
By a vote of 25 to five, the panel advanced the First Step Act, which was sponsored by Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins and New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, to apply a series of changes to the Bureau of Prisons, its rehabilitation programs and re-entry process.
The revised bill was unveiled Monday, after a vote on its previous iteration, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, was delayed in April.
Wednesday’s passage of the bill came over the protests of New York Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, the committee’s top Democrat, who moved to postpone the vote so the panel could work on a sentencing reform measure. Successfully objecting the move, Collins argued the bill was the best workable option.
“This is our time to move,” Collins said. “I agree with the gentleman. I would like to see sentencing reform moved, but I’m also looking at this from a practical purpose of looking at families right now and saying let’s help them now.”
April’s delay reflected criminal justice reform advocates’ and liberals’ dissatisfaction with the legislation, which offered federal prison reform but did not include a component to reform federal sentencing guidelines.
The bill focuses on both efforts within prisons to reduce the likelihood of recidivism and the re-entry process from prison to the rest of society. Among other things, the bill would order the Bureau of Prisons to expand the availability of programs in prisons with the goal of reducing recidivism, increase the time some prisoners can become eligible to serve their sentences in custody outside of prison and mandate prisons provide tampons and sanitary napkins to prisoners as needed.
Two paths on the issue
The bill backed by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday marks one of two paths forward in this Congress on criminal justice reform.
One path, providing prison reform alone, has the backing of President Donald Trump, and the other, a comprehensive approach including sentencing reform, enjoys the support of a broader constellation of criminal justice reform advocates, but faces longer odds to passage.
An alternative bill passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in February contains measures aimed at lessening the severity of some federal sentencing guidelines. It passed out of committee over the express objection of the White House and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who strongly objected to changes in the severity of federal sentencing guidelines.
That bill’s backers, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, continue to press for some sentencing reform, while Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the chamber, warned in February their bill would not become law due to its powerful opponents.
Cornyn, along with Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, introduced prison reform legislation mirroring the House bill that does not contain sentencing reform.
The bill approved by the House committee on Wednesday reflects cooperation with the White House, particularly Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who has tried to help shepherd the issue through Congress.
Mixed reviews among advocates
Dozens of organizations – including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights as well as the American Civil Liberties Union – signed onto a letter opposing the Redemption Act last month, highlighting the divide among criminal justice reformers.
Like the Redemption Act, the bill unveiled Monday and passed out of committee Wednesday did not include a sentencing reform component, but it contained several new provisions that some criminal justice reform advocates touted.
Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums said on Tuesday his organization decided to support the bill now that it had “evolved quite a bit.” He said they still wanted a sentencing reform bill and would hope for Congress to address that in the future.
“There’s people hurting in the meantime,” Ring said.
In addition to a coalition of progressive organizations, criminal justice reform also enjoys widespread support among many conservative groups. The powerful Koch Brothers network has advocated for both sentencing and prison reform, and supported Wednesday’s effort, with the group Freedom Partners announcing a digital ad buy in some Democratic members’ districts before the vote.
Mark Holden, a leader of the Koch network, told CNN ahead of the vote he was optimistic about what the bill could accomplish and pointed to its title, the First Step Act, as an indication that sentencing reform could be on the horizon.
“Just the title alone is kind of interesting to me,” Holden said.
However, key outside advocates of criminal justice reform continued to oppose the revamped legislation, and argued passing prison reform without a sentencing component would be a blow to their efforts.
A letter from The Brennan Center said the new bill has “real improvements” over the Redemption Act, but said without sentencing reform the bill would not have any “discernible impact on mass incarceration.”
The Leadership Conference and ACLU likewise issued a letter with dozens of other criminal justice reform proponents urging a vote against the First Step Act.