Landmark Whitehouse Criminal Justice Reform Bill Clears Senate
Bipartisan First Step Act based on Whitehouse legislation to help inmates successfully transition back to society
Washington, DC – Senate Judiciary Committee member and long-time criminal justice reform champion Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) cheered passage tonight of his bipartisan First Step Act, to improve the federal criminal justice system. Whitehouse first introduced a central component of the First Step Act in 2013 with Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) to reduce the rate of re-offense among federal inmates, along with other important reforms. That legislation was later merged with sentencing reform legislation to become the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SCRA), which Whitehouse has championed ever since. The current version, First Step, passed tonight by a vote of 87-12.
“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,” said Whitehouse. “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.”
The First Step Act establishes recidivism reduction programs based on Whitehouse and Cornyn’s legislation to help prepare low-risk inmates to re-enter society successfully. Qualifying inmates under the provisions may receive reductions to their sentences through time credits upon successful completion of recidivism reduction programming. Rhode Island implemented similar programs in 2008, which have been followed by a 17 percent reduction in the state prison population, a six percent drop in three-year recidivism rates, and a significant drop in crime.
The bill narrows the scope of mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals, while broadening and establishing new outlets for individuals with minimal non-violent criminal histories that may trigger mandatory minimum sentences under current law.
The bill also reduces certain mandatory sentencing minimums and provides judges with greater discretion when determining appropriate sentences. Under the bill, courts must first review eligible inmates’ individual cases, including criminal histories and conduct while incarcerated, before determining whether a sentence reduction is appropriate.
Importantly, the bill preserves cooperation incentives to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins and stiffens penalties for individuals convicted of serious violent felonies.
Whitehouse has met with a range of stakeholders in Rhode Island and nationwide in crafting the legislation. Among those meetings was a dinner with President Trump’s daughter and son in law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who have been working on the bill.
A one-page summary of the First Step Act is available here.
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