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The stalemate in the Senate on prison reform may finally break in coming weeks thanks to the persistence of conservative leaders — but the work is not yet done. The FIRST STEP Act passed the House more thanthree months ago by an overwhelming bipartisan margin. Since then, it has been stalled in the Senate.
As the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) holds a substantial amount of power in the Senate. The FIRST STEP Act has been for all practical purposes immovable without his blessing, which is contingent on adding sentencing reforms to the bill. A relatively recent advocate who has worked diligently on sentencing reform, Grassley is the primary sponsor of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
Within the last few months, conservative senators and the White House alike have taken significant steps toward striking a deal on adding sentencing reform to the prison reform bill to bring Grassley on board with moving the FIRST STEP Act to follow through on a legislative priority identified by President Donald Trump in his State of the Union address and advocated for consistently in the months and weeks since.
At the beginning of August, Grassley met directly with a very receptive Trump to pitch a package of sentencing reforms to add to the FIRST STEP Act. Adding sentencing reforms also brings the support of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who was the lead co-sponsor of Grassley’s SRCA. Durbin’s support for the package, which he enthusiastically announced, will likely bring many Senate Democrats on board as well.
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Near the end of August, a series of pivotal meetings were held at the White House between criminal justice advocates and stakeholders from the administration and the Senate, Trump, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) committed to conducting a formal whip count of the prison and sentencing reform package after the midterm elections. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) called the meetings “a huge step forward in getting a bill passed that will help keep communities safe and make our criminal justice system more fair.”
The sentencing reforms proposed to be added to FIRST STEP are, frankly, quite modest. A compilation of the most minor provisions from SRCA, the provisions would address 924(c) stacking charges, reform 841/851 sentencing enhancements for prior offenses, expand the existing federal safety valve for mandatory minimum sentencing, and apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively.
Addressing stacking charges under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) is the least controversial of the proposed changes, simply ensuring that it is applied only to true recidivists. This would prevent first-time, nonviolent offenders such as Weldon Angelos from being unjustly sentenced to 55 years in prison for, in Weldon’s case, three separate sales of small quantities of marijuana.
Notably, during the markup of SRCA in the 114th Congress, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), now attorney general, stated, “I think the stacking issue is a problem…I would support reform of the stacking provisions somewhat like you have it in the bill today.”
Similarly met with limited controversy is a tailored fix to the sentencing enhancements under 21 U.S.C. 841 and 851. Currently applicable to all former felony drug offenders, the fix would modify and focus sentencing enhancements to serious drug felons and expand them to serious violent felons. This narrow fix will enhance public safety as dangerous individuals are no longer left on the streets while individuals who are significantly lower safety threats are incarcerated.
Expanding the existing federal safety valve is commonsense policy. The proposed expansion would open up the option of a safety valve to those qualifying individuals with up to four criminal history points instead of only one, excluding anybody with a single three-point offense. Conservative states like Georgia and Mississippi have implemented safety valves.
The simple fact is that we appoint judges to exercise their legal expertise and issue sentences that fit the crime a defendant is found guilty of. Modest expansions of the safety valve allow judges to practice their expertise in applying the law to serve justice in the most fair way.
Finally, retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 would allow individuals sentenced under the reactionarily-enacted 100-to-1 crack cocaine versus powder cocaine disparity to appeal their cases for a reduced sentence under the compromised 18-to-1 disparity passed with unanimous support in 2010.
As the U.S. Sentencing Commission determined, those who received retroactively reduced sentences under the 2010 law have an identical rate of recidivism to those who did not. This modification gives justice to those suffering from exceedingly long sentences and saves taxpayer dollars with no negative effect on public safety.
The goal of justice reform is to enhance public safety in commonsense ways that save taxpayer dollars and improve communities by ensuring those who return to them after incarceration are fully rehabilitated. The work that reform senators and others have done to advance these policies is commendable.
The House has spoken its support for the FIRST STEP Act, as have stakeholders across the political spectrum. With a deal on the table that strikes such a precise balance and a positive message from Leader McConnell to move the package, conservatives now have their turn to act on good policy.
Ahead of the White House meetings, a group of nearly three dozen conservative leaders sent a letter to Trump encouraging him to support the deal. All that is left is for the Senate to follow through on this key legislative priority and put a commonsense package on Trump’s desk.
Sarah Anderson is a federal affairs manager for FreedomWorks.
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