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Historic prison reform could start next week

With a new Congress coming in just a few weeks, criminal justice reform is viewed by some as now or never proposition. Last week, it appeared all but dead, but now it’s on track for a vote next week in the Senate where it’s expected to pass.

The First Step Act would reform sentencing guidelines and prepare inmates to return to society. Backers say it would also reduce recidivism, when a criminal becomes a repeat offender.

Shon Hopwood, who served time for bank robbery, became a jailhouse lawyer and is now a law professor at Georgetown University. “We know that some programs can reduce recidivism because the Federal Bureau of Prisons has one,”  he stated. “The residential drug and abuse program has reduced recidivism by 16 percent.”

President Donald Trump supports the measure, as do some key Republicans, including  Sens. Chuck Grassley (LA), Lindsey Graham (SC) and Rand Paul (KY).

But critics, including a group of Senate Republicans led by Sen. Tom Cotton (AR), oppose the First Step Act because it begins rolling back mandatory minimum sentencing and will speed up the release of some current inmates. Some fear it could give violent criminals a pass.

The split in the GOP is one reason Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had been reluctant to bring the bill to the floor, but he’s now put a process in motion that could see a vote early next week.

“We’re really looking to get this done and have a Christmas miracle,” says Heather Rice-Minus with Prison Fellowship, who explains why many faith leaders support the bill.

“Right now in the criminal justice system we have some serious issues as far as people receiving disproportionate sentences and people not having the skills inside prison to really transform to return home as good neighbors good citizens,” Rice-Minus said.

A Justice Department report says 70 million Americans are directly involved in the criminal justice system. Reform advocates say it’s bad policies – not an increase in crime – that has led to what some are calling an “incarceration nation.”

Mark Holden of Koch Industries said, “We see the criminal justice system in this country as a huge barrier to millions and millions of people, particularly those who have the least resources, and it creates a poverty trap, makes us less safe and wastes a lot of resources.”

The First Step Act cleared the House in May, and if it passes the Senate next week, many believe it will deliver the most significant changes to the criminal justice system in a generation.