Senate approves Trump-backed criminal justice overhaul

The Senate on Tuesday night overwhelmingly passed the biggest overhaul to the criminal justice system in decades, giving a win to President Donald Trump and a bipartisan group of advocates and lawmakers.

Tuesday’s vote caps more than a year of negotiations to create more rehabilitation programs and ease mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related crimes.

The bill, which passed 87-12, brought together many unlikely allies, including a group backed by the conservative Koch brothers, the American Civil Liberties Union, the White House and senators from both sides of the aisle.

“Every step meant a lot, and there were a couple of huge game changers, and one of the biggest game changers was the president coming out openly and aggressive for this bill,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), one of the lead sponsors of the bill, said after its passage. “That made a huge difference. … We got 87 votes for this thing. That says we did something right.”

The Senate’s passage of the bill brings to a close more than a year of often-fraught negotiations, with some Republican senators earlier this month essentially writing off the measure as dead. Although the bill was a priority for Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was reluctant until last week to bring to the floor legislation that divides his caucus. Trump had personally lobbied the majority leader to bring the bill up for a vote.

McConnell ultimately voted in favor of the legislation.

The House is expected to approve the bill easily this week, sending it to Trump for final approval.

Trump was quick to congratulate the Senate on the bill’s passage.

“America is the greatest Country in the world and my job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes,” he tweeted. “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!”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Lee led the effort.

“Our criminal justice system is a cancer on the soul of this country,” Booker said Tuesday. “One of the top reasons I wanted to run for United States Senate was to get legislation like this done.”

All 49 Democrats voted in favor of the bill, and 12 Republicans voted against it. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was absent.

The Republicans who voted against the bill were Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), John Kennedy (R-La.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

The legislation, which was revised last week, provides incentives for some federal inmates to earn time credits if they participate in certain programs, reduces the three-strike penalty to 25 years from life in prison, reduces the disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine and would ease mandatory minimum sentencing.

The bill faced vehement opposition, particularly from Cotton, who said it would allow for the early release of violent criminals.

Cotton requested a Justice Department analysis of the bill that found individuals convicted of sex crimes could be released early. In addition, he introduced amendments to the bill, along with Kennedy, that would bar more offenders from participating in the bill’s earned-time credit program and imposed new reporting requirements on the Bureau of Prisons. The Cotton-Kennedy amendment failed Tuesday night.

“How can anybody oppose telling a woman who has been raped that her rapist is about to get out of prison early?” Kennedy said Tuesday prior to the amendment vote. “It’s not letting her veto it. … It just says you gotta tell her and let her offer her opinion. I mean, who could be against that?”

The Senate bill’s passage comes after previous failed attempts to overhaul the criminal justice system, including an unsuccessful attempt at a more sweeping reform under President Barack Obama.

Advocates were quick to praise the passage of the bill.

“Today was a resounding win for second chances, bipartisanship, and, most importantly, for the thousands of Americans families who are burdened by our broken justice system,” said Holly Harris, executive director of Justice Action Network.

“In one of the most divisive political climates in decades, Republican and Democratic senators reached across the aisle and made history, ushering in a new era for a justice system that prioritizes rehabilitation, provides second chances, and, ultimately, makes us all safer,” Harris said.

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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