House vote sends major criminal justice overhaul to Trump
The bill follows the example of states such as Texas that have boosted training and treatment programs for inmates in an effort to curb recidivism and save taxpayer dollars
By Kevin Freking
WASHINGTON — The House passed a wide-ranging criminal justice bill on Thursday that will reduce some of the harshest sentences for federal drug offenders and boost prison rehabilitation programs, handing President Donald Trump a legislative victory amid the turmoil over how to avoid a partial government shutdown.
The bill addresses concerns that the nation's war on drugs led to the imprisonment of too many Americans for nonviolent crimes. The nation's federal prison population has soared by more than 700 percent since the 1980s.
The House passed the bill 358-36 on Thursday, sending it to Trump for his signature.
Passage of the legislation is an achievement for Trump, who joined supporters in pushing for a Senate vote when the effort appeared to have stalled. It's also a win for his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who championed the legislation and became a key go-between as lawmakers and advocacy groups negotiated a compromise.
"This is a great bi-partisan achievement for everybody," Trump tweeted moments after the vote. "When both parties work together we can keep our Country safer. A wonderful thing for the U.S.A.!!"
The bill had a unique combination of support from evangelicals, fiscal conservatives and liberals, all agreeing that the nation's prisons are warehousing too many nonviolent prisoners and that it was taking an excessive toll on families and taxpayers. Lawmakers had been working on the proposal since the Obama administration.
"This is something I have believed in for a long time," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "As Americans, we are about lifting people up. There is no reason a person who wants to redeem themselves, work hard and contribute to their community should be deprived of that opportunity."
The measure gives judges more discretion in sentencing some drug offenders and reduces some mandatory-minimum sentences. For example, it reduces the life sentence for some drug offenders with three convictions, or "three strikes," to 25 years.
"This is a sensible change. We want to punish repeat offenders, but we do not want our federal prisons to become nursing homes," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Another provision would allow about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses to petition for a reduced penalty. Congress had already moved in 2010 to reduce the disparity in sentencing between charges for crack and powder cocaine, but the bill passed on Thursday makes the changes retroactive. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., estimated that 96 percent of the prisoners who could be helped by the provision are black or Latino.
The legislation also encourages prisoners to participate in programs designed to reduce the risk of recidivism: an accumulation of credits can be used to gain an earlier release to a halfway house or home confinement to finish out their sentence. It prohibits prisoners convicted of a wide range of serious offenses from earning such credits and gaining earlier release.
The bill follows the example of states such as Texas, South Carolina and Georgia that have boosted training and treatment programs for inmates in an effort to curb recidivism and save taxpayer dollars. States have shown that it's possible to reduce incarceration rates and crime rates at the same time, said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga.
"It's about moneys and morals— being smart on money and giving people the chance that they need," Collins said.
The measure also seeks to improve various aspects of prison life by requiring prisoners to be placed within 500 driving miles of their home, by banning the shackling of pregnant women and by guaranteeing free access to feminine hygiene products.
The House overwhelmingly approved a prison overhaul bill in May that focused on helping prisoners get education and treatment before returning to their homes, but senators insisted that the legislation had to include changes to drug sentencing laws. That made the effort a heavier lift because of the potential for lawmakers being blamed with attack ads if someone helped by the bill were to commit a heinous crime once they were released.
Eventually, the National Fraternal Order of Police endorsed the bill after sponsors agreed to drop language that would have made more of the sentencing changes retroactive. Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., needed more convincing before allowing a vote, but did so after an extensive lobbying campaign from supporters, including the president.
Lawmakers credited Kushner for helping get the bill across the finish line. His father, Charles Kushner, had served a year in federal prison for illegal political contributions and tax evasion.
The Senate approved the measure on Tuesday night by a vote of 87-12, moving it to the House just as lawmakers try to wrap up work for the year.