WASHINGTON (ABC4 News)- A sweeping bill reforming the federal criminal justice system is on its way to passage after winning key votes in Congress this week.
The group of lawmakers working on this really thought their bill was going nowhere, but after getting support from the White House things started to click in place.
“None of us expected an 87-12 vote,” Sen. Chuck Grassley said.
Holding up the final tally, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley said passage of the first step act is a victory for justice and bipartisan compromise.
“When people trust each other, you can sit down and get legislation,” Grassley said.
The wide-ranging bill restricts mandatory sentencing for nonviolent offenders, allows some inmates to earn early release with good behavior, and supports prison programs to prepare inmates for life on the outside.
The story of the First Step Act dates back to the mid 80’s when Congress began passing “tough on crime” bills to fight epidemic drug abuse and violence.
Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin says it led to more drugs on the street, overcrowded prisons, and disproportionately impacted minorities.
“Let me preface my remarks by telling you about the worst vote that I ever cast as a member of Congress, ” he said.
Over the last decade, Durbin has fought to change course. The Democratic leader found an ally in Utah Republican Mike Lee.
“We knew that it would be difficult,” Sen. Lee said.
The senators’ reform bill languished in Congress.
“Then came a breakthrough that I never expected: the election of Donald Trump as president,” Dublin said.
President Trump praised the First Step Act and pushed for a vote.
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton led the fight against the bill, but he was overcome by a coalition of lawmakers like Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander who believe it does protect public safety while also bringing fairness to the system.
The First Step Act only applies to the federal system — which accounts for about 10 percent of the U.S. prison population. Supporters say the title reflects the truth: this is a first step and they hope to continue to push for changes in the criminal justice system.