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House OKs justice-system overhaul

by Frank E. Lockwood | December 21, 2018 at 4:30 a.m. | Updated December 21, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday overhauling the nation's federal criminal-justice system, a package that would shorten sentences in some instances and emphasize rehabilitation efforts.

The vote was 358-36. All four House members from Arkansas supported the legislation.

The Senate passed the measure by a vote of 87-12 on Tuesday. U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Rogers, supported the legislation. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Dardanelle, led the fight to derail it.

President Donald Trump called passage of the First Step Act "another very historic landmark."

"That was an incredible achievement. I think it'll go down as one of the great-- the great moments. This legislation will help thousands of former inmates and nonviolent offenders get a second chance at life," he told a crowd that had assembled for the farm bill signing ceremony.

There are 180,789 people in federal prison facilities, up from about 25,000 in 1980, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Overall, there were 2.16 million people who were incarcerated on the local, state and national level as of Dec. 31, 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Supporters said the measure would give a second chance to thousands of low-risk, nonviolent offenders. Critics argued that the bill would imperil public safety.

The White House had lobbied for the legislation, which was backed by organizations from across the political and cultural spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the National Association of Evangelicals and Prison Fellowship.

If the First Step Act becomes law, people imprisoned under the three-strikes law would no longer face automatic life sentences; instead they would face 25 years in prison. Certain drug offenses that carry automatic 20-year sentences would result in 15-year sentences.

It also would make retroactive a 2010 law that reduced the disparity between powder-cocaine and crack-cocaine-related convictions. Before 2010, crack-cocaine possessors were dealt with more severely than those caught with powder cocaine.

In addition, the legislation would expand supervised early release programs for low-risk prisoners, enabling well-behaved inmates to get credit for enlisting in job-training programs, among other things, supporters say.

The legislation exempts dozens of categories of crimes from early release programs.

Prisoners would be housed within 500 miles of their hometowns.

The use of shackles to restrain pregnant women would generally be prohibited. The exceptions would be because there was no other means of stopping a woman who is a flight risk or who is determined to harm herself or others, or if it is necessary to protect her medical safety.

The legislation mandates screening, upon admission, for inmates with learning disabilities. It also requires de-escalation training to help corrections officers better respond to inmates who have mental illnesses or cognitive impairment.

Supporters included at least two former Southern Baptist Convention presidents: Conway native the Rev. Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, and the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas.

A coalition of black ministers, including the Rev. Sharon Nesbitt of Marion, also had urged passage, portraying it as an advancement for civil rights.

In Arkansas, at least two law enforcement officials were listed as supporters: Boone County Sheriff Mike Moore and Clark County Sheriff Jason Watson.

Cotton's efforts to derail the legislation -- and his characterization of supporters as "criminal leniency" advocates -- rankled lawmakers from both parties.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had called Cotton's response to the legislation "very disappointing," telling the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "He is wrong about this on so many fronts."

Rogers native Doug Deason, a Texas philanthropist and major Republican donor, had called Cotton's stance "embarrassing," predicting, "This is going to be held against him."

Cotton, who was not reachable for comment after Tuesday night's vote, was also unavailable for comment Thursday. A spokesman said he might be reachable today.

House members from Arkansas portrayed Thursday's vote as a positive development.

Passage of the First Step Act is "a crucial step for criminal justice reform," U.S. Rep. French Hill said in a written statement.

"This issue transcends partisan boundaries, and I believe that all Arkansans and Americans in good standing with the law, regardless of their environment or background, deserve the opportunity to improve their lives. By implementing more opportunities for education and skill development, this bill offers incarcerated Americans and Arkansans aid in living better lives," the Republican from Little Rock said.

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers agreed.

"America is the land of promise and opportunity," he said. "The First Step Act gives nonviolent, low-risk offenders that very opportunity -- the opportunity for a fresh start and the chance to become productive members of society. This bipartisan legislation does so while also ensuring that dangerous and violent prisoners stay behind bars and making our communities safer. I was proud to vote in support of these historic criminal justice reforms."

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman called the First Step Act "a move in the right direction," saying it would give "non-violent federal inmates an opportunity through rehabilitation and educational opportunities a second chance to live a new life as a productive member of society."

A provision calling for inmates to be screened for dyslexia also was praised by the Republican from Hot Springs.

U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Jonesboro, called the First Step Act "an important step forward."

"Our society, in general, I think, is fairly forgiving," he said. When rehabilitated prisoners are released and ready to contribute to society, "I think you ought to give people the tools and the opportunity and the second chance to do it," Crawford said.

A Section on 12/21/2018

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