U.S. lawmakers to unveil revised criminal justice bill in push for final passage

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A proposed overhaul of America’s prison policies and criminal sentencing standards was being revised on Monday as U.S. lawmakers scrambled to win enough support for it ahead of the end of the year, said sources involved in the negotiations.

Revisions to the bill could pressure Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it up for a vote, which he has so far declined to do, despite broad bipartisan support and backing by President Donald Trump for the measure.

Entitled the First Step Act, the bill would make it easier for deserving inmates to be released from prison into halfway houses or home confinement, create programs to reduce recidivism, and prevent first-time non-violent offenders from facing harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

Both progressive and conservative-leaning groups back it, but it has stalled amid opposition from hard-right Republicans in the Senate such as Tom Cotton, as well as the National Sheriffs’ Association, which has complained it could let “thousands of criminals out” of prison.

One of the changes is expected to scale back some discretion that judges may have to sentence felons with criminal histories beneath mandatory minimums, according to one person familiar with the talks.

Another change expected to be addressed in the new version was pushed by Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who said late last week he was dropping opposition to the bill after changes were made to how defendants charged with gun crimes were treated in the bill.

Republican Senator John Cornyn said a new bill was being offered and told a Reuters reporter he would support attaching it to a broader spending bill being debated in Congress.

“I was talking with the National Sheriffs Association and giving them the good news that there’s been progress made in the direction they had requested. I’m not sure it’s going to be satisfactory to them. But I think it’s important we try to work with our law enforcement agencies,” Cornyn said.

The lame-duck session of the current Congress is expected to end before Christmas. The 2019-2020 Congress will be seated on Jan. 3. Backers of the bill fear delaying it could give opponents more time to pick it apart. “We might as well strike while the iron’s hot,” Cornyn told Reuters.

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