While many federal prisoners and their families await the outcome of the First Step Act, many senators are still not on board. According to the executive director of Justice Action Network, Holly Harris, “70 to 80 senators already support the proposal.” One of the holdouts is Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas).
In a recent article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cotton was “blasted” by former New York City police commissioner, Bernard B. Kerik. Kerik has “seen the inner workings of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for three years and eleven days.” This was due to his conviction on federal tax fraud charges. Kerik added the First Step Act would “reduce recidivism, reduce prison overcrowding; and make communities safer, by having offenders leave prison for real jobs, instead of having to revert to crime.”
Cotton on the other hand, along with John Kennedy (R-Louisiana), feels the First Step Act doesn’t go far enough. Several crimes listed by Cotton in a rebuttal letter to Mr. Kerik are currently eligible for additional time credits. These include fentanyl and methamphetamine trafficking; threatening to assault, kidnap, or murder a federal judge or official; and assaulting a federal law enforcement officer. This crimes currently would be eligible for early release from prison. Yet, certain crimes, such as possession of child pornography, are excluded. Senator Cotton, instead of using common sense to eliminate several crimes that should be eligible, is trying to add more. While common sense does show that of the above examples, two realistically are violent, the drug trafficking crimes, should not be a complete exclusion, but should be based more on the role in the crime.
There seems to be a split among groups on the act. The Fraternal Order of Police, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, the National Urban League, Prison Fellowship, and Koch Industries agree with Mr. Kerik in that the bill is needed.
Organizations and associations such as the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, the National Sheriffs’ Association, leaders of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, Association of Federal Narcotics Agents, National Association of Police Organizations, and the National Narcotics Officers’ Associations’ Coalition hold their stance alongside Senator Cotton.
The bipartisan legislation, which passed the House in May with 86% support (360-59), would be the biggest overhaul of the criminal justice system since 1994. Some of the provisions would include correcting the statutory good conduct time that inmates can earn per year from 47 to 54 days, making the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act retroactive for those convicted of crack-cocaine offenses, would make modifications to the “three strikes” rule, force the BOP to house prisoners within 500 driving, as opposed to air miles, of their release residence, expand educational opportunities, prohibit the shackling of pregnant prisoners, except under certain situations, and allow “non-violent” prisoners to earn more time in a halfway house or on supervised release. There are several other provisions in the bill not listed here as well.
While Senator Cotton complains that people who “live in Osceola or Truman or Pine Bluff–working-class towns in [his] state where crime has been increasing lately,” providing adequate job training and recidivism reducing programs would help alleviate this problem. Despite the fact the BOP prison population dropped below 200,000 under President Obama for the first time in decades, overall the crime rates have remained about the same.
President Trump is supportive of the bill, but Cotton still believes America has an “under-incarceration problem.” The head-butting between party members, including Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, are dooming the President on what could be his biggest accomplishment of his tenure. If McConnell does not bring the bill for a floor vote and it does not pass both houses by December 14, when Congress adjourns, the chances of enactment are all but dead as 2019 and 2020 will be used to prepare for the 2020 elections.
Sources: New York Times. “McConnell Tells Trump a Criminal Justice Bill is Not Likely this Year”. (Nov. 16, 2018); Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Cotton Criticized for Sentencing Stance”. (Nov. 23, 2018).
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