It’s one of the biggest changes to our criminal justice system in a generation. While most on Capitol Hill hail it as a strong first step, some worry it’s a step in the wrong direction.
In one of its last acts of the year – Congress takes aim at the justice system. The First Step Act knocks years off some mandatory sentences; it seeks to help low-risk inmates get out of prison earlier and stay out when they do.
"I think, really, we can have a more compassionate understanding that people make mistakes," said Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).
Tuesday every democrat and most republicans in the Senate signed-off – voting 87 to 12 in favor.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) voted against it. He argues the bill leaves too much discretion to judges and leaves bureaucrats calculating who gets their sentence cut short. "If you want a debate on this floor... over sentencing provisions and whether they are just, I will pounce on it like a ninja," he said as he made a case for deciding the tough questions in Congress.
The First Step Act won’t affect most prisoners. Of the 2.1-million people behind bars in the United States, only about 10 percent -- 180,000 – are in the federal system. Non-violent offenders who do earn a break – will only get a modest one.
"Iit’s not going to impact mass incarceration," said Kim Ball. She's a former prosecutor and director of the Justice Programs Office at American University.
Topping a lengthy list of concerns, she said the changes won’t do enough to keep low-level offenders out of the justice system altogether or rehabilitate high-risk criminals who will eventually walk free.
"I believe we have a lot of work to do," she said just ahead of Tuesday's vote. But, she did say the bill does make incremental progress, and it's a good first step, so long as more follow.
The immediate next step for the bill: President Donald Trump is expected to sign it into law by the end of the week.