Supporters of criminal justice reform bill warn of ‘poison pills’ as legislation heads for Senate floor

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With the Senate set to vote this week on White House-backed legislation that seeks to reform the nation’s prison system and sentencing guidelines, supporters are crying foul over a set of amendments they say would effectively gut the bill.

Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Alabama, two of the most vocal critics of the legislation, have introduced amendments that they say would expand explicit exclusions for violent criminals from early release programs, among other changes.

“If advocates of First Step want to protect public safety, they will support all three amendments,” Cotton said in an Op-Ed in the National Review published Monday.

But backers of the legislation, known as the First Step Act, say the amendments are actually designed to effectively kill the bill, which they say already excludes violent offenders from early release, and would disincentive prisoners from participating in anti-recidivism programming by giving wardens ultimate veto power in determining a prisoner’s fate.

Holly Harris, a conservative strategist who has been pushing for the bill’s passage in her role as the Executive Director of Justice Action Network, says the Cotton amendments are “not based in reality.”

“This is a person who truly doesn’t understand the prison system. There has to be some incentive to participate in this programming,” Harris said. “This is not a good faith effort but an effort to destroy the bill.”

Criminal justice reform advocate Van Jones, who has been a close ally of the White House on this legislation, said he remains optimistic that ultimately the bill will pass but said the Cotton amendments would deal a blow to the efficacy of the legislation.

“Sen. Cotton is hoping that those amendments will stick and cause some Democrats to bolt from supporting the bill,” said Jones. “We will pass this bill, the question is whether some of his amendments will also make it in.”

A coalition of groups and individuals from across the political spectrum who back the bill penned a joint letter addressed to President Trump expressing their strong opposition to the Cotton-Kennedy amendments.

“The amendments proposed by Senators Cotton and Kennedy will weaken what would otherwise be a significant step towards making our federal prisons more accountable and results oriented. Beyond substance, however, they are political ‘poison pills’,” the letter says.

“Right now we have a system of only sticks and people get bitter, we’re trying to get to a system where there are some carrots and people can have some hope,” Jones said.

Debate on the bill is expected to begin in the Senate Monday night with supporters confident they have the votes needed to advance the bill toward final passage, killing amendments like those from the two conservative GOP senators, according to a senior GOP aide to a bill cosponsor. The White House declined to comment on the attempted revisions to the legislation.

A final vote on the measure is expected mid-week.

The House must then approve the measure, but aides to members in both chambers have been working behind the scenes to ensure the bill’s passage. The bill would then head to the president’s desk where he has said he would sign it.

The bill’s approval would be a notable achievement for President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has been the leading advocate for criminal justice reform within the administration and shepherded the White House’s legislative effort.

Evan Vucci/AP, FILE
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner shakes hands with President Donald Trump during an event on prison reform in the East Room of the White House, May 18, 2018, in Washington.

The issue is a personal passion for Kushner, whose own father spent time behind bars for tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions over a decade ago.

President Trump’s embrace of the legislation is a departure from his tough-on-crime rhetoric.

While the president has gone so far in the past gone as to call for the death penalty for drug dealers, the president has gotten on board with a bill that aims to loosen sentencing guidelines for some nonviolent drug offenses.

“We’re all better off when former inmates can receive and reenter society as law-abiding, productive citizens. And thanks to our booming economy, they now have a chance at more opportunities than they’ve ever had before,” President Trump said in November, announcing his support for the Senate bill.

In addition to giving judges greater latitude in sentencing for some nonviolent offenses, the First Step Act also seeks to beef up anti-recidivism programming for the nation’s prison population. According to Justice Department figures, approximately three out of every four Americans released from prison ends up back behind bars within five years.



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