Senate OKs criminal justice bill touted by Grassley as offering ‘once-in-a-generation reforms’

December 20, 2018 GMT

WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan overhaul Tuesday night of both criminal sentences and the prison system.

The 87-12 vote represented the culmination of a significant push for the measure by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, as he prepares to give up the gavel of the Senate Judiciary Committee in order to take over the Finance Committee.

The legislation would provide judges with options to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and eliminate some mandatory sentences. It also includes prison infrastructure changes intended to reduce recidivism.

Grassley has described the legislation as a chance for “once-in-a-generation reforms” and a victory for American justice.

Determined opponents characterized the proposal as allowing violent criminals loose on the public.

Grassley responded that the bill would automatically render dangerous, violent offenders ineligible for benefits afforded to low-level offenders.

“This law is centered towards those people that are the least violent people that are in prison already,” Grassley said. “We’re only going to help low-level offenders.”

The bill now goes to the House, where it is expected to pass before heading to the desk of President Donald Trump, who has indicated that he will sign it.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, was an early supporter of the bill along with Grassley, but the original legislation split the Republican caucus.

[Read more: Fischer and Sasse split with Grassley and Ernst on criminal justice bill ]

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a member of the Judiciary Committee, was among those who opposed the legislation to the very end.

Sasse said in a press release earlier in the week that the bill was fundamentally flawed. Keeping families together by reducing the sentences of nonviolent offenders is a worthy goal, he said, but many offenders in federal prison are violent.

“While this Sentencing Reduction Bill does some good things for nonviolent inmates, as written it will also release thousands of violent felons very early,” Sasse said. “That’s a grave mistake that will hurt innocent Americans. Good intentions are not enough.”

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., was among those who had previously expressed concerns with the legislation. Fischer criticized provisions of the initial bill she said could have benefited those convicted of drug-trafficking-related gun crimes.

But Fischer supported the final version Tuesday, saying that among changes in the final version was language to exclude those convicted of gun crimes related to drug trafficking from early release.

She said that she visited with judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials in Nebraska who told her the bill would provide them “more tools in their toolbox” and provide for more fairness in sentencing so that offenders’ punishments fit their crimes.

Fischer cited cases where a defendants would be required to serve a 10-year mandatory sentence when a term of two or three years would actually be more appropriate.

“This will help end that,” Fischer said.