House pushes ahead with White House-backed prison legislation

The House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill backed by the White House aimed at improving federal prisons that faces steep opposition in the Senate and among advocates of criminal justice revisions.

The First Step Act, sponsored by Georgia’s GOP Rep. Doug Collins and New York’s Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, passed Tuesday afternoon by 360-59, following its passage out of the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month by a vote of 25-5.

The bill mandates a series of changes to the Bureau of Prisons, including increasing access and incentives for some prisoners to participate in programs, like education and vocational training, aimed at decreasing the chance an inmate returns to prison after release. It would also mandate federal prisoners be incarcerated no more than 500 miles from their homes, ban the shackling of pregnant women and enshrine into law the bureau’s provision of feminine hygiene products as needed.

But the legislation has come under fire almost entirely for what it does not contain: measures that would lessen the severity of federal sentences and thereby put a dent in the federal prison population.

Grassley: House bill can’t pass Senate as is

Iowa’s Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Senate Judicary Committee chairman, has continued to demand that any prisons bill include a sentencing component. Many Democrats in both chambers of Congress have joined him in this demand, as have key groups outside government, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

“For that deal to pass the Senate, it must include sentencing reform,” Grassley reiterated at a Washington event Tuesday morning.

This demand comes in direct opposition to the Trump administration, which came out against Grassley’s more comprehensive bill in February. At the time, Grassley took particular issue with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ opposition, saying, “I don’t think that’s something that somebody should do to friends.”

The White House issued a statement about the bill’s passage late Tuesday:

“The Trump Administration is encouraged that the House of Representatives passed the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act today. This is an important bill that promotes evidence-based programs to reduce recidivism and crime in America’s communities. Today’s strong bipartisan vote paves a path for action by the Senate.”

The debate over retooling the federal criminal justice system comes at a critical juncture, with President Donald Trump’s election and his appointment of Sessions marking a shift away from the policies of the Obama administration toward a system more in line with his “law and order” campaign message.

An oversight hearing with Bureau of Prisons Director Mark Inch last month underscored challenges extending to the federal prison system itself, with several members of Congress pressing on the federal prison system’s practice of “augmentation,” a term for having prison staff, like cooks and nurses, step in as guards to meet personnel needs.

Despite its hardline criminal justice directives, the White House has embraced prison revisions with Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — the White House point person on the issue — hosting an event on the issue last Friday.

That same day, the Justice Department announced Inch’s exit as director, less than a year after Sessions named him to the post.

‘There’ll be a fight’

It is unclear if the gap can be bridged between the administration’s opposition to a sentencing overhaul and the demand from Grassley and others for that component.

For their part, Collins and Jeffries told reporters on Monday they did not see a way to pass sentencing revisions at this point, and when asked about next steps for the issue after it passes the House, Collins predicted tough discussions on the Senate side.

“There’ll be a fight over there, just like there has been over here,” Collins said.

And Jeffries said that while he and Collins both support sentencing revisions, he believed that many who held out for more would not get anything done.

“In the last Congress, there were some in the advocate community who urged us as Democrats to step away from negotiating a bill with the Obama administration on criminal justice reform by making the argument that we could get more under a Hillary Clinton presidency,” Jeffries said. “How did that work out?”