Leahy Hails Senate Passage Of Sentencing Reform Pkg.; Leahy, A Leading Cosponsor, Helped Build Strong Bipartisan Consensus

Leahy, A Leading Cosponsor, Helped Build Momentum And Consensus For The ‘Rare And Commonsense’ Reforms

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) hails the Senate’s strong bipartisan vote late Tuesday night on the First Step Act as a “rare chance to reform the nation’s prison and sentencing system to reduce recidivism, save tax dollars, and foster safe communities.”   

The First Step Act is years in the making and Leahy, an original cosponsor of the bill, played a lead role in methodically forging over the past six years the bipartisan coalition that led to its passage.  The bipartisan First Step Act uses evidence-based recidivism reduction programs to help inmates successfully return to society after serving their sentence.  It also reduces for low-level, nonviolent offenders certain mandatory minimum sentences intended for drug kingpins and high-level managers. The bill is one of the last acts of this Congress, which ends its current session this week.  It was approved by a vote of 87-12 and now goes to the House for a final vote.  President Trump has indicated he will sign it. 

Leahy helped launch this effort six years ago, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, when he convened hearings and then secured bipartisan committee approval of the core pieces of legislation that form the basis of the First Step Act.

Leahy also is the co-author, with Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) of the Second Chance Reauthorization Act, which was included in the reform package.  The Portman-Leahy legislation will reauthorize reentry services for ex-offenders.

The package also includes another Leahy-cosponsored bill, the GRACE Act, that will improve the approval process for compassionate release of ailing or terminally ill inmates, which will also save taxpayer dollars.

Leahy said:  “These reforms are modest but important steps to remedy some of the most troubling injustices within our sentencing laws and our prison system.  It is my hope that this bill represents not just a single piece of legislation, but a turning point in how Congress views its role in advancing criminal justice.”

The First Step Act combines prison reform proposals that overwhelmingly passed in the House of Representatives earlier this year with sentencing reform provisions from the broadly bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February.

The comprehensive package aims to reduce crime by helping low-risk inmates prepare to successfully rejoin society through participation in proven recidivism reduction programs.  It also improves fairness in prison sentences by recalibrating certain mandatory minimum sentences while expanding their application to new categories of violent felons.  The bill grants greater discretion to judges in sentencing of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who cooperate with law enforcement.  It also clarifies congressional intent on sentencing enhancements for certain crimes involving firearms.  The First Step Act preserves the maximum potential sentences for violent and career criminals. Finally, the legislation also allows petitions for retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act to be considered on an individual basis to reduce sentence disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses.  Under these reforms, any savings they generate will be reinvested into law enforcement programs to further reduce crime and improve community safety.

The First Step Act includes safeguards that prevent career and violent criminals from receiving earned time credits toward pre-release custody following completion of recidivism reduction programs. Under the bill, each inmate is evaluated using a data-driven risk and needs assessment tool to determine their likelihood of reoffending upon release.  Only inmates found to be a low or minimum risk may benefit from earned time credits.  Conviction for a number of serious offenses also disqualify inmates from earning time credits.

The First Step Act is modeled after state-based reforms that have proven to reduce crime, prison populations, and taxpayer expenses.  It is backed by several law enforcement groups, including the largest police organization, and by 172 former federal prosecutors, including two former Republican U.S. attorneys general, two former deputy attorneys general and a former director of the FBI, along with sheriffs from 34 states.  The National Governor’s Association has also praised the bill, as have the members of a broad coalition of conservative and progressive groups, business leaders, and faith-based organizations.

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