By KEVIN FREKING
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate passed a sweeping criminal justice bill Tuesday that 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.
Senate passage of the bill by a vote of 87-12 culminates years of negotiations and gives President Donald Trump a signature policy victory, with the outcome hailed by scores of conservative and liberal advocacy groups. The House is expected to pass the bill this week, sending it to the president's desk for his signature.
The bill gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and boosts prisoner rehabilitation efforts. It also reduces the life sentence for some drug offenders with three convictions, or "three strikes," to 25 years. Another provision would allow about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said the nation's prisons are full of Americans who are struggling with mental illness and addiction, and who are overwhelmingly poor. He said the nation's criminal justice system "feeds on certain communities and not on others," and said the bill represents a step toward "healing" for those communities.
"Let's make no mistake, this legislation, which is one small step, will affect thousands and thousands of lives," Booker said.
The Senate turned back three amendments Tuesday from Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, who said the bill endangered public safety. Supporters voiced concerns that passing any of the amendments would have sunk the bill.
One amendment would have excluded more prisoners from participating in educational and training programs that allow them to earn credits. Those credits can then be used to gain an earlier release to a halfway house or home confinement to finish out their sentence. Another amendment would have required that victims be notified before a prisoner gets that earlier release. The third would have required the Federal Bureau of Prisons to track and report the re-arrest rate for each prisoner who gets early release.
"This would not solve all the problems of the bill, but it would at least ensure some of these most heinous criminals who prey on young children or the vulnerable are not released early from prison," Cotton said in urging lawmakers to support the amendments.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the bill already carves out some 60 different crimes that make prisoners ineligible for early release to a halfway house or home confinement. He said Cotton's amendment was too expansive and would prevent at least 30,000 prisoners from participation.
Congratulations to US Senate for passing @POTUS‘ Criminal Justice Reform with an overwhelming Bipartisan vote tonight! The First Step Act will reduce recidivism, make communities safer & save taxpayer dollars. House should vote to send this HISTORIC reform to @POTUS’ desk ASAP! https://t.co/3UHF4z4MBE— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) December 19, 2018
Durbin said the Federal Bureau of Prisons also gives victims the opportunity to be notified upon a change in the prisoner's status, but it's a choice. He said about 10 percent of victims choose not to be notified because of the trauma involved in revisiting the crime. Meanwhile, the amendment from Cotton and Kennedy would make it a requirement.
"Supporting the Cotton amendment is basically saying to these crime victims, `We're going to force this information on you whether it's in the best interest of your family, whether you want it or not,"' Durbin said. "That is not respectful of crime victims."
An array of liberal and conservative advocacy groups rallied in support of the bill. They say the changes would make the nation's criminal justice system fairer, reduce overcrowding in federal prisons and save taxpayer dollars. The bill would affect only federal prisoners, who make up less than 10 percent of the country's prison population.
Law enforcement groups were more split. It was backed by the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police but opposed by the National Sheriff's Association. The union representing federal prison guards also joined in supporting the measure.