Many Democrats believed that a years-long bipartisan push to overhaul the federal criminal-justice system died with the election of Donald Trump. The president had proudly anointed himself the “law-and-order candidate” in 2016 and appointed as his attorney general Jeff Sessions, the Senate’s leading conservative critic of reducing mandatory-minimum sentences, improving federal prison conditions, and easing the transition back into society for those incarcerated.
But Trump is now backing a component of that effort—prison reform—and the sudden viability of the issue is dividing Democrats, who are torn over whether to accept a modest step toward reducing rates of recidivism or hold out for a more comprehensive solution that’s unlikely to pass while Trump is in office. The House on Tuesday evening passed bipartisan legislation known as the First Step Act that would authorize $250 million in new funding for prisoner-reentry programs, ban the shackling of pregnant inmates, and expedite early release for elderly inmates and those who earn “good time” credits during their sentences.
The 360–59 vote came despite a late push against the bill from some civil-rights groups, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and a coalition of leading Senate Democrats, including Dick Durbin of Illinois, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Kamala Harris of California. In a letter released last week, the senators said the measure would be “a step backwards” and that prison reform would fail if Congress did not simultaneously overhaul the nation’s sentencing laws. Also signing the letter were Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Representative John Lewis of Georgia, the civil-rights icon whose opinion is widely respected by Democrats.