WASHINGTON — A battle’s brewing in the U.S. Senate over a bipartisan package of criminal justice reforms, and Louisiana’s senators have wound up on opposite sides of the issue.
Sen. Bill Cassidy earlier this week signed on to the First Step Act, which would ease mandatory minimum prison terms and give federal judges more discretion at sentencing. The bill, endorsed by President Donald Trump, would be the first major rewrite of federal sentencing laws in decades.
But Cassidy’s fellow Republican, Sen. John Kennedy, has ripped into the law, characterizing it as soft on crime — and he's been attacking Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat and frequent Kennedy foil, in the process.
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Kennedy has repeatedly likened the First Step Act to Louisiana’s 2017 bipartisan overhaul of prison sentences, which has cut the state’s previously highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate while shortening sentences, primarily for non-violent offenders.
The First Step Act would reduce mandatory minimum federal prison sentences for drug-related crimes and offer early release to some prisoners suffering from severe and chronic illnesses. The House of Representatives passed a similar prison reform bill in May but senators have since added additional provisions.
The proposed legislation would eliminate a long-criticized disparity between sentences for crack and cocaine offenses and retroactively shorten sentences for those already serving lengthy prison terms for crack offenses.
The bill would also put millions more into rehabilitation and screening programs for federal inmates and offer prisoners who complete classes points toward possible earlier release dates.
The bill “will make our communities safer and give former inmates a second chance at life after they have served their time,” Trump said at a White House event last month.
Cassidy joined 13 other Republican and 14 Democratic senators in sponsoring the bill.
“I agree with President Trump. This reform makes society safer,” Cassidy said in a statement Monday announcing his support. “Equipping non-violent and low risk parolees to re-enter society, get a job and stay out of trouble can break the cycle of recidivism and crime. This also saves taxpayers money. Keeping geriatric inmates with Alzheimer’s under guard is a waste of prison beds.”
As a physician, Cassidy once worked in high-security prisons to treat inmates.
As was the case for Louisiana’s 2017 reforms, the First Step Act has attracted a unique coalition of supporters from both left and right, including free market think tanks, religious conservatives and left-wing civil rights groups.
But its fate likely rests in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who so far has refused to bring the package up for a vote on the Senate floor. A handful of staunch opponents — including Kennedy and Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton — have urged McConnell to block the bill.
Influential Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, an outspoken backer of the proposal who has spent years negotiating the overhaul, contends he has plenty of support to pass it.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a vocal opponent but was ousted from office by Trump shortly after last month’s midterm elections. Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House advisor, has lobbied hard for the bill's passage.
Edwards, the Louisiana governor, met with Kushner to discuss the state's prison reforms earlier this year and invited Trump in August to tour the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola to learn more about the state's efforts to rehabilitate convicts.
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It’s unclear when, or if, McConnell will bring the package up for a vote. Grassley told reporters he hopes the package will pass this year but said he’d try to work with the incoming Democratic leadership in the House next year if it remains stalled.
Kennedy, who opposed Louisiana’s criminal justice overhaul and has repeatedly criticized the state prison system’s handling of its rollout, has painted a grim picture of his home state to national reporters while explaining his opposition to the proposed federal overhaul.
In a February Judiciary Committee hearing on an earlier version of the bill, Kennedy called Louisiana’s overhaul “an unqualified disaster” and, despite strong Republican support for the changes in the Baton Rouge Statehouse, blamed Edwards for the changes.
Edwards and other Louisiana officials blasted Kennedy for those comments, arguing the senator badly skewed the facts and seized upon a small handful of incidents to undercut a law that’s significantly cut the prison population while saving taxpayer money.
Edwards, who has repeatedly tangled with Kennedy on a range of issues, also dismissed Kennedy’s criticism as “political posturing.”
Kennedy for months considered challenging Edwards for the governorship next year but announced on Monday that he plans on remaining in the Senate instead.
The First Step Act would only impact prisoners convicted in federal court and serving their sentences in federal prisons. State courts and prisons — where roughly 90 percent of all U.S. prisoners are sentenced and serve time — wouldn’t be affected by the overhaul.