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By Rebecca Shabad and Phil Helsel
WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a huge criminal law reform bill on Tuesday night, seizing on bipartisan support for the broadest set of changes to federal crime statutes in a generation.
A rare coalition of conservatives, liberals, activists, prosecutors and defense attorneys — spanning the political spectrum — pushed senators to pass the “First Step Act” by a final vote of 87-12.
The House is expected to take up the Senate version of the bill at a later date. The House passed a similar version of the bill back in May by a wide margin, 360-59.
President Donald Trump announced in November that he backs the legislation.
Supporters of the bill claim that changes passed in the Senate would make America’s criminal justice system fairer, reduce overcrowding and save taxpayer dollars — much to the benefit of drug and non-violent offenders.
The bill would not affect state prisons. It only covers federal prisoners, who make up less than 10 percent of America’s prison population.
Trump quickly jumped on Twitter to hail the bill’s passage, and said “America is the greatest Country in the world and my job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes.”
“This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!” the president tweeted.
The Senate bill overcame late obstacles by Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and John Kennedy, R-La.
Cotton railed against the First Step Act as a “jailbreak” and said too many crimes were being included to allow prisoners consideration for early release.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in urging senators to reject an amendment sponsored by Cotton, said “this law is centered towards those people that are the least violent people that are in prison already,” and that “we’re only going to help low-level offenders.”
“Let’s see if we can keep our bipartisan coalition together, to pass a bill that the president said that he is ready to sign,” Grassley said. The amendment was defeated.
A major provision of the bill gives judges more leeway to diverge from strict mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders with criminal histories.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., tweeted after the Senate vote: “Criminal justice reform is about giving more Americans a chance at redemption. The House looks forward to sending it to the president to become law.”
David K. Li and Frank Thorp V contributed.