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Criminal Justice Reform Bill Earns Senate Approval, Moves Closer To Becoming Law


A bipartisan bill aimed at overhauling federal prisons and reducing recidivism cleared a major hurdle tonight. By a vote of 87 to 12, the Senate voted to pass the measure known as the First Step Act. It goes next to the House for a vote. NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe has been tracking the bill's progress. She joins me now. Hey there.


KELLY: So an overwhelming and bipartisan vote - this is not something we see in the Senate every day. Remind us what this bill is supposed to do.

RASCOE: So it applies to federal offenses. And basically it would reduce sentences for certain drug crimes, including ending automatic life sentences. Under this three-strike penalty, it would move that down from a life sentence on your third strike to 25 years. It would also allow prisoners who were sentenced before Congress lowered the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine to petition the court to change their sentence based on the updated law. So basically it would make a law passed in 2010 - make it retroactive.

And it would also provide incentives for prisoners to participate in these training and rehabilitation programs kind of aimed at preparing them for life after incarceration. And if they did participate, they might be able to earn these credits that would allow them to spend part of their sentence in a halfway house or at home kind of under supervision, under house arrest.

KELLY: Now, I suppose we should remind people of the history here. A criminal justice overhaul is something that has been talked about for a long time, right?

RASCOE: Yeah. It's something that advocates have wanted for a long time. There was some work on this during the Obama administration - in fact a lot of work on this. When I mentioned the crack cocaine sentencing, that happened - changes to that. It happened under Obama. And during the last year of the Obama administration, there was this hope that there would be a big bipartisan compromise that would make it into law, but that didn't happen.

Part of the reason why there's been this kind of movement is that over the years, you've had conservative activists like the Koch brothers and The Heritage Foundation and all of these very conservative and even evangelical groups come out in favor of changing the way the U.S. deals with prisoners. Basically they, along with their kind of progressive counterparts - they're arguing that giving out these really long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes have led - has led to massive prison populations and costs a lot of taxpayer dollars without really cutting down on crime. So the argument was - and there was agreement on this between Republicans and Democrats - was that something needed to be done, but it wasn't quite clear what they would be able to agree on.

KELLY: I mean, you're describing why momentum was there to make a change. What do you think got this vote in the Senate at least over the hump this time?

RASCOE: This time you had Republicans in control of the House and the Senate, and you had a supporter in the White House, Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and adviser, who really wanted to get this done. And he could help to convince President Trump to come out in support of it. And when President Trump came out in support of it, it was able to kind of get over this hump and get the support that it needed.

KELLY: And I suppose we'll see where this goes in the House when they come back into session tomorrow. And I gather they're slated to vote on it later this week. Ayesha Rascoe, thanks very much.

RASCOE: Thank you.

KELLY: That's NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.