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Criminal Justic Bill Passes First Vote 12/18 06:20

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Legislation that would ease federal sentencing laws for 
some offenders cleared its first major test vote Monday, garnering overwhelming 
support in both parties even as some conservatives portrayed the bill as soft 
on crime.

   The Senate voted 82-12 to advance the bill. A vote on final passage would 
come later in the week, but not until the chamber has debated and voted on a 
series of amendments from opponents that will be brought up Tuesday.

   The bill would give judges more discretion when sentencing drug offenders 
and allow about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses 
before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty. The bill 
also encourages prisoners to participate in programs designed to reduce the 
risk of recidivism, with the reward being the accumulation of credits that can 
be used to gain an earlier release to a halfway house or home confinement to 
finish out their sentence.

   To win over wary senators, sponsors tweaked the bill to prevent those 
convicted of violent firearm offenses, sexual exploitation of children and 
high-level fentanyl and heroin dealing from participating in the supervised 
release program --- but Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and others want to expand 
that list.

   Their amendment would add carjacking, bank robbery by force, felony sex 
crimes and other "felony crimes of violence" to the list of offenses that make 
a prisoner ineligible.

   "Some of those crimes should not be eligible for that program," said Sen. 
Mike Rounds, R-S.D. "At this point, I'm probably a no unless they get that 
done."

   Cotton has been among the most vocal opponents of the legislation, saying: 
"If other senators want to vote for a bill that's going to let sex offenders 
and child pornographers and wife-beaters out of prison, that's their 
prerogative. That's between them and the voters in their state."

   The bill has created a unique split in the GOP camp, while Democrats are 
overwhelmingly supportive.

   Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a former federal prosecutor, is among the 
bill's champions. He said he has been haunted by the words of a federal judge 
who sentenced a low-level drug offender carrying a gun to 55 years in prison, 
noting that murderers, rapists and terrorists could get less time for their 
offense. He said only Congress could fix the problem.

   "Those comments have stayed with me ever since," Lee said.

   The bill follows the lead of states such as Texas that have experienced a 
decrease in crime in recent years while keeping fewer people in prison. Sen. 
John Cornyn, R-Texas, said his home state has been able to close eight prisons 
since undertaking various prison reforms, such as investing in probation 
staffing and getting prisoners into drug treatment more quickly.

   "This is not about being tough on crime, or soft on crime," Cornyn said. 
"This is about being smart on crime and getting the best results."

   Supporters of the bill warn that amendments from Cotton and Sen. John 
Kennedy, R-La., could cause the compromise to unravel if the Senate approves 
any of them as early as Tuesday. A unique cross-section of liberal and 
conservative advocacy groups have rallied in support of the bill.

   David Safavian, general counsel for the American Conservative Union, said 
the bill's critics ignore that offenders would be subject to strict oversight 
while completing their sentence at halfway houses or in home custody. The 
prisoners also have to show through objective criteria that they are a low risk 
to society before obtaining supervised release.

   Under the current process, nearly half of released federal prisoners are 
arrested again.

   "And every case of recidivism is another victim, is another crime, is 
another prosecution, is another trial, is another prison cell, all funded with 
taxpayer dollars," Safavian said. "I'm sorry, but there is nothing conservative 
about protecting a non-functioning prison bureaucracy."

   If the legislation passes the Senate, the House is expected to approve it 
quickly. The House had earlier passed legislation that focused on boosting 
prisoner rehabilitation programs, but did not include changes to sentencing 
laws that critics say had led to overly harsh sentences for many nonviolent 
offenders, particularly African-Americans.

   The bill looked to have stalled a couple weeks ago, but supporters led by 
President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner persuaded Senate Majority 
Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to allow for the Senate vote before Congress 
adjourns.


(KA)

 
 
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