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December 6, 2018

Latest seemingly encouraging news on debate over FIRST STEP Act

As lots and lots of folks keep discussing and debating the FIRST STEP Act in various fora, this new Washington Examiner article brings something close to new news about the prospects for the legislation.  The lengthy piece is headlined "Influential First Step Act opponent backs some key provisions, offering hope to supporters," and here are excerpts:

A leading opponent of President Trump's push for criminal justice reform has admitted that he supports key planks of the legislation, giving reformers hope it can pass by the end of the year.

Larry Leiser, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, told the Washington Examiner he supports in principle three of four major sentencing reforms included in the Trump-backed First Step Act.

Provisions to reduce prison sentences were added last month to satisfy senators pushing for deeper reform after less-controversial prison reform and societal reentry measures passed the House of Representatives in May. Leiser opposes the underlying bill, but said there's merit to the additions.

"This is significant because Larry has been among the loudest and most persistent critics of criminal justice reform and the First Step Act," said Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, a supporter of the legislation. "Having him on board with these reforms should help ease any concerns some senators may have about making our sentencing laws more proportional and just."

The First Step Act faces a tight deadline before Democrats retake the House of Representatives in January. Reform advocates fear that a divided Congress will lead to an impasse that results in no reform. Republicans are split on the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not committed to a vote. Bill supporter Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said last month that it would get 80 votes in the Senate, but that the push would likely die when Democrats retake the House and advocate for even farther-reaching changes.

As time dwindles, Holden shared with the Washington Examiner details about a private conversation he had with Leiser, a leader of the opposition, alongside Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. Holden said that nearly a year ago, Leiser said he supported three of four major sentencing changes ultimately added to the bill. In a phone call Wednesday, Leiser confirmed the account, but said that he opposes the overall package, mainly due to concerns about process and provisions that passed the House.

"What Mark Holden is trying to do is pick off the things we agree on and say we support the overall bill, [but] there are parts of the bill that we think are adverse to public safety,” Leiser said. Leiser said he supports repeal of a three-strikes life sentence for drug crimes and an expanded sentencing “safety valve” to allow judges to deviate from harsh drug penalties, though he believes the Senate bill sets the bar too low.

Leiser said he opposes a fourth major sentencing addition to the First Step Act that would retroactively reduce sentences for crack cocaine convicts punished under a since-changed law. Many such sentences, however, already were cut by former President Barack Obama.

Although he supports some of the reforms, Leiser opposes seemingly less-contentious provisions in the bill that passed the House, notably allowing inmates who participate in anti-recidivism programs to transfer early to supervised release, such as living in a halfway house. He said there's no evidence programs reduce recidivism at the federal level and that he suspects reformers are downplaying the bill's potential effects.

December 6, 2018 at 11:25 AM | Permalink


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