Senators have shaken hands on enough changes to the proposed criminal justice overhaul for backers to predict that President Donald Trump will get to sign an update of mandatory minimum sentences and other tough-on-crime laws.
A new addition to the bill would change the way decisions are made about letting a federal inmate have home confinement instead of time behind bars. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had argued that the initial language would have calculated time-served credits in a way that could have allowed too many dangerous prisoners to qualify.
The new version keeps language that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent drug crimes — a central goal of the legislation, which would rewrite laws in effect for decades.
“We’ve got 79 committed votes right now and others who are undecided may also support the bill,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) told reporters. “We’re so close to delivering these meaningful reforms.”
Bowing to White House pressure, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he can find time on the floor schedule to bring a revamped criminal justice bill (S. 3649) up for a vote. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the House is prepared to quickly clear the bill if the Senate passes it.
HOW LONG BEHIND BARS
The modified package would expand the list of crimes that make federal prisoners ineligible to earn time credits or be transferred to home confinement. New offenses would include assaulting an officer, domestic assault, gang activities, prison contraband, lower-level fentanyl offenses, or helping an immigrant illegally enter the U.S.
It would give judges more discretion to use so-called safety valves, though not as much as originally proposed. The earlier version would have let a court waive disqualifying criminal history if an offender’s record wasn’t representative of his or her role in a crime or their likelihood of committing other crimes. Safety valves essentially allow courts to sidestep mandatory minimums and impose shorter sentences under certain circumstances.
“It’s a much fairer bill and it protects from any judicial abuse,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who sought that change, said in an interview.
SCREENING AND GRANT CHANGES
The new measure also would:
- Require the Justice Department to screen inmates for dyslexia and provide appropriate anti-recidivism services.
- Reauthorize grant funding and other programs under the Second Chance Act (Public Law 110-199) through fiscal 2023. Grant funding to states, local governments, territories, or Indian tribes would support adult and juvenile prisoner reentry pilot projects, substance abuse treatment, mentoring and career training, and other programs. The original draft didn’t include the second chance reauthorization language.