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Senate overwhelmingly approves criminal justice reform

By Allen Cone
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was among 38 Republican senators who approved a sweeping criminal justice reform bill Tuesday. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was among 38 Republican senators who approved a sweeping criminal justice reform bill Tuesday. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 18 (UPI) -- The U.S. Senate approved federal criminal justice reform Tuesday night with bipartisan congressional support and the backing of President Donald Trump.

The First Step Act was approved 87-12, with 38 Republicans joining all 49 members of the Democratic caucus. Other support has come from law enforcement, conservative groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.

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The legislation would reform several aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system, including allowing inmates to reduce sentences with an earned-time credit program. Judges would also have more discretion, instead of mandatory minimum sentencing for some drug-related crimes. It would also boost prisoner rehabilitation efforts in an effort to reduce recidivism rates, and life sentences for some drug offenders with three convictions, or "three strikes," would be cut to 25 years. In addition, the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine offenses would retroactively be reduced.

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The legislation, which would only affect federal crimes, would cut off a collective 53,000 years of sentences over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

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The House approved a different version earlier this year and will have to pass the Senate version before the president signs the bill. Trump has described the reform as "reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off our streets."

Trump applauded the Senate's vote, posting on Twitter: "America is the greatest country in the world and my job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes.

"This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!"

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Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called the legislation "perhaps the most significant bill to reform our criminal justice system in nearly a decade."

"We're not talking about money," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. "We're talking about human potential. We're investing in the men and women who want to turn their lives around once they're released from prison, and we're investing in so doing in stronger and more viable communities, and we're investing tax dollars into a system that helps them produce stronger citizens."

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Several "poison pill" amendments introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., were defeated earlier Tuesday, 62-37, 66-33 and 67-32.

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, in trying to assure hesitant Republicans, said Trump "wants to be tough on crime, but fair on crime."

"If anybody's got any doubt whatsoever about whether or not the president is for this bill, I'm telling you what I heard from his own words," said Grassley, who helped craft the deal with Durbin and Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah.

Republicans who voted against the bill were Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Jim Risch of Idaho, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Dan Sullivan of Alaska and John Barrasso of Wyoming.

"A number of serious felonies, including violent crimes, are still eligible for early release in the version of the bill the Senate will vote on in a matter of days," Cotton wrote in an op-ed published Monday in the National Review. "In short, the First Step Act flunks their basic test to protect public safety."

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