In an example of rare bi-partisan support, a historic and sweeping bill that reforms the criminal justice system has cleared the Senate. It is a victory for the Trump administration and Congress as both liberals and law-and-order conservatives came together.
One main aspect of the reform is that the reforms would give judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and would boost prisoner rehabilitation efforts–an aspect pushed by Christians prison ministries across the nation who found their efforts being hamstrung under the Obama administration.
The First Step Act, which passed 87-12, attracted support from both sides of the aisle, as well as from public figures such as Patricia Arquette, Mark Cuban, Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West. Donald Trump supported the iteration of the bill that passed in the House in May, and the most current version that will need to return to the House for another vote (which it is expected to pass), before it reaches his desk for a signature later this week.
The sweeping bill addresses concerns that the nation’s war on drugs had led to the imprisonment of too many Americans for non-violent crimes without adequately preparing them for their return to society.
Shortly after the Senate vote, President Trump tweeted his congratulations, saying, “America is the greatest Country in the world and my job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes. Congratulations to the Senate on the bi-partisan passing of a historic Criminal Justice Reform Bill. 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!”
Trump, who has been advocating for reform since he won the presidency, met with prison reform activists including numerous large Christian ministries that have made tremendous progress in rehabilitating prisoners before release to the general population. Under the Obama administration, these organizations were often keep out of prisons and state correctional facilities as left-wing activists lobbied it was a violation of separation of church and state.
Meanwhile, Trump pushed ahead and declared April 2018 to be “Second Chance Month.”
The act would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for a number of drug-related crimes, allow judges to circumvent federal mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders when they see fit, expand rehabilitative opportunities for federal prisoners, and ban some correctional practices criticized as inhumane, such as the shackling of pregnant women. The act would give elderly and terminally ill inmates a path home and invest tens of millions in re-entry programming.
“I know from experience that dangerous criminals exist — individuals who are incapable of or uninterested in rehabilitation and change,” Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican co-sponsoring the Senate version of the bill, wrote recently. “We should throw the book at those people. But my time as a prosecutor also tells me that not every criminal is dangerous or incapable of living a productive life.
“My faith as a Christian teaches me that many people are capable of redemption,” Lee added. “And my instincts as a conservative make me believe that the government can be reformed to work better.”
Religious conservatives have often taken the lead in ministering to inmates. Charles Colson (of Watergate fame) started the Prison Fellowship Ministry. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, in partnership with the American Conservative Union, heavily funded criminal justice reform efforts.
Minorities are disproportionately more likely to be both convicts and crime victims. African-Americans, for instance, are 13 percent of the U.S. population but make up 40 percent of prisoners. Government programs aimed at reducing this disparity by rehabilitating felons so they commit fewer crimes should be attempted because they are the right thing to do – and will make our communities safer.
Despite opposition from Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, a powerful voice among Christian conservatives, who argued the bill is too lenient toward drug offenders and gives too much discretion to judges, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought the First Step Act to the floor yesterday afternoon. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 87 to 12. The House, which passed a different version of criminal justice reform earlier, is expected to take up the bill later this week.
The act would end so-called “three strikes” mandatory life sentences for defendants facing a third drug conviction, except for those with a prior “serious violent felony”. The “stacking” regulations that make it illegal to posses a firearm while committing a crime, even if the firearm is not used, would also no longer come into play.