Skip to content

Senate Passes Landmark Criminal Justice Reform

First Step Act approved by vote of 87-12

WASHINGTON – The Senate tonight passed once-in-a-generation reforms to America’s prison and sentencing system to reduce recidivism, save tax dollars and promote safe communities. The bipartisan First Step Act uses evidence-based recidivism reduction programs to help inmates successfully return to society after serving their sentence. It also reduces some sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent offenders while preserving important law enforcement tools to tackle criminal enterprises. The bill was approved by a vote of 87-12.
“It’s been several decades since Congress made significant reforms to our nation’s criminal justice and prison policies. The First Step Act takes lessons from history and from states – our laboratories of democracy – to reduce crime, save taxpayer dollars and strengthen faith and fairness in our criminal justice system. Today’s vote is an important victory in our years-long effort, which has resulted in a broad bipartisan recognition of the need for reforms. This bill is the product of careful deliberation and input from a wide range of stakeholders and law enforcement organizations. I’m grateful for the engagement from those who joined us to pass the bill and for President Trump’s leadership. I look forward to the swift passage of the First Step Act by the House,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said.
“Tonight, by a vote of 87-12 the members of the Senate proved that we can work together for the good of our nation.  Passage of the First Step Act is the most significant change to our system of criminal justice in decades.  It was supported by an amazing coalition of unlikely partners – progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans, law enforcement groups and civil rights groups, business leaders and faith-based organizations.  By passing this legislation, we will now begin to relieve our overcrowded prisons, redirect funding to our most pressing crime prevention efforts, make our communities safer, and ensure the integrity of our justice system.  I commend my colleagues for their spirit of cooperation on this important piece of legislation and I look forward to seeing this legislation signed by the President,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said.
“We did it. We passed real bipartisan criminal justice reform. Thanks to the hard work of my colleagues American families will be stronger and our communities will be safer. This is a huge win for America and President Trump,” Senator Mike Lee said.
“Our country’s criminal justice system is broken – and it has been broken for decades. You cannot deny justice to any American without it affecting all Americans. That’s why the passage of the First Step Act tonight is so meaningful – it begins to right past wrongs that continue to deny justice to millions of Americans. This bill is a step forward for our criminal justice system. By no means can it be the only step – it must be the beginning of a long effort to restore justice to our justice system. But for the first time in a long time, with the passage of this bill into law, our country will make a meaningful break from the decades of failed policies that led to mass incarceration, which has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, drained our economy, compromised public safety, hurt our children, and disproportionately harmed communities of color while devaluing the very idea of justice in America,” Senator Cory Booker said.
“Today the Senate took a great step forward in building safer communities and a brighter future for those who have served their time and are re-entering society. By cutting recidivism, encouraging job training, education and mental health and substance abuse treatments for incarcerated individuals, and making our criminal justice system both smarter and tougher, we have taken a positive step forward tonight. I want to thank all of my colleagues for their hard work on this bill, and I look forward to House passage and the President enthusiastically signing the First Step Act into law,” Senator Tim Scott said.
“This bill is the product of years of bipartisan hard work, patience, and strong advocacy by Rhode Islanders and people across the country, including those who have gone through the system themselves. Senator Cornyn and I drew on our home states’ success in helping low-risk inmates return to society, stay out of trouble, and contribute to their community. The bill will also address serious issues with sentencing practices that land too many people in prison for too long. Thank you to the Rhode Islanders who contributed to this bill, and to my colleagues from both sides of the aisle who joined me in this effort,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said.
The First Step Act combines prison reform proposals that overwhelmingly passed in the House of Representatives earlier this year with sentencing reform provisions from the broadly bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February.
The comprehensive package aims to reduce crime by helping low-risk inmates prepare to successfully rejoin society through participation in proven recidivism reduction programs.  It also improves fairness in prison sentences by recalibrating certain mandatory minimum sentences while expanding their application to new categories of violent felons.  The bill grants greater discretion to judges in sentencing of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who cooperate with law enforcement. It also clarifies congressional intent on sentencing enhancements for certain crimes involving firearms. The First Step Act preserves the maximum potential sentences for violent and career criminals. Finally, the legislation also allows petitions for retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act to be considered on an individual basis to reduce sentence disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Under this legislation, any savings generated by the reforms are automatically reinvested into law enforcement programs to further reduce crime and improve community safety.
The First Step Act includes safeguards that prevent career and violent criminals from receiving earned time credits toward pre-release custody following completion of recidivism reduction programs. Under the bill, each inmate is evaluated using a data-driven risk and needs assessment tool to determine their likelihood of reoffending upon release. Only inmates found to be a low or minimum risk may benefit from earned time credits.  Conviction for a number of serious offenses also disqualify inmates from earning time credits.
The First Step Act is modeled after state-based reforms that have proven to reduce crime, prison populations and taxpayer expenses. It is endorsed by President Trump and cosponsored by more than a third of the Senate, evenly balanced among Democrats and Republicans.
The First Step Act is backed by a number of law enforcement groups, including the nation’s largest police group. It’s also supported by 172 former federal prosecutors including two former Republican U.S. attorneys general, two former deputy attorneys general and a former director of the FBI along with sheriffs from 34 states across the country. The National Governor’s Association, which represents the governors of all 50 states, praised the bill. A broad coalition of conservative and progressive groups along with a host of business leaders and faith-based organizations also support the First Step Act.