By Nicholas Fandos . . . The Senate overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday the most substantial changes in a generation to the tough-on-crime prison and sentencing laws that ballooned the federal prison population and created a criminal justice system that many conservatives and liberals view as costly and unfair.
The First Step Act would expand job training and other programming aimed at reducing recidivism rates among federal prisoners. It also expands early-release programs and modifies sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, to more equitably punish drug offenders. . . .
Even as both sides acknowledged concessions, Tuesday’s vote was an important first step for the unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives — including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, Koch brothers and the liberal Center for American Progress — who locked arms in recent years and pushed lawmakers to reconsider the way the federal government administers justice three decades after the war on crime peaked. In one of this Congress’s final acts, every Democrat and all but 12 Republicans voted in favor of the legislation — an outcome that looked highly unlikely this month amid skepticism from Republican leaders. . . .
Proponents of the bill overcame an aggressive campaign by some conservatives who tried to resurrect the once-resonant charge that reducing sentences would make the United States less safe. Two Republicans, Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, introduced amendments to limit which types of offenders would be eligible for early-release programs or to water down other changes. All were narrowly voted down on the Senate floor.