After years of delays and a strenuous effort to derail it led by Senator Tom Cotton and abetted by Mitch McConnell, the Senate passed a modest prison and sentencing reform bill appropriately called the First Step Act by a margin of 87-12. The House (which passed a somewhat different version of the bill earlier the year) is expected to rubber-stamp the Senate action later this week.
Deservedly or not, Donald Trump will get a lot of credit for prying this legislation loose over frequent objections from McConnell, who cited both time constraints and a reluctance to divide Senate Republicans. POTUS endorsed the bill shortly after the midterms, probably because it had become closely associated with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But Kushner himself, inspired by his own father’s experiences as a resident of federal correctional institutions, definitely deserves significant credit.
First he got the ball rolling with that modest House bill, which focused on policies governing the transition from prison to freedom. Then he guided the strategy that slowly brought in Senate Democrats with sentencing reform add-ons while eroding Senate Republican opposition with a few largely symbolic concessions on lock-’em-up-itis. In the end, all 49 Senate Democrats voted for the bill (including two putative 2020 candidates, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, who were on the fence until very recently due to concerns that the bill didn’t go far enough), as did 39 of the 51 Republicans, including past opponents Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, plus McConnell himself.
Beyond Kushner, the real architects of the legislative win were Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley and Democrat Dick Durbin, along with the mind-bending coalition of liberal and conservative groups supporting the initiative. The bill that is headed for Trump’s desk is at best a down payment on serious criminal-justice reform, and falls short of the kind of measures that have found bipartisan support in the states. But it does signal a formal end to the bipartisan drive for mass incarceration that prevailed in the federal government for decades, over the loud objections of throwbacks like Tom Cotton, who famously proclaimed that America has an “under-incarceration problem.”
The big question is whether this legislation is the beginning or the end of the criminal-justice reform effort in Congress. Republicans, most definitely including Trump, may want to return to their law-and-order rhetoric while treating the First Step Act as a permanent solution. Democrats can be expected to push for more significant sentencing reforms, though some of them, too, may want to move on to other topics. Passage of any sort of criminal-justice reform legislation took a long time, a huge effort, and a circuitous route to success. It could be the most our prison-happy system can accomplish at present.