Vote Alert: Release dangerous criminals from federal prisons

· December 20, 2018  
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CR Liberty Score Update

This vote was to pass the First Step Act, an expansive prison reform bill that reduces prison sentences for drug traffickers, increases the discretion judges have to avoid mandatory sentencing, and mandates that administrative agencies create ill-defined programs to accelerate release for federal prisoners.

A conservative approach to criminal justice should be rooted in downgrading nebulous, over-criminalized regulatory crimes while getting tougher on those who harm other people and fuel the violence in our major cities. Unfortunately, far from applying only to low-level, nonviolent, first-time offenders, as proponents suggest, the First Step Act offers front-end and back-end leniencies in sentencing and time served for many hardened criminals, including criminal illegal aliens.

This legislation:

  • Reduces mandatory sentences for many of the worst repeat drug traffickers targeted by federal prosecutors during the worst drug crisis in American history. Every repeat drug trafficker subject to the mandatory minimums, including high-level international cartel officials, will benefit from reduced mandatory sentencing regardless of their prior criminal history or the type of drug.
  • Expands the safety valve, which allows judges to avoid the mandatory sentencing altogether, to include people who potentially have a significant criminal history, as opposed to first-time criminals.
  • Offers numerous back-end early release programs that apply retroactively so that many (but not all) drug traffickers and many other dangerous criminals in the federal system can serve at least one-third of their sentences in home confinement or full release into parole. Roughly 4,000 felons, including those with extensive records of violence and gang membership, will be eligible for immediate release when this bill becomes law. Between front-end and back-end sentencing cuts, many repeat drug traffickers will see their sentences cut in half.

Many conservative organizations and activist groups supported this legislation under the belief that participation in the training and educational programs required to qualify for early release will help reduce recidivism for ex-convicts and lower crime in the long term. However, that optimistic belief in criminal justice reform principles glossed over the actual text of the First Step Act and the nature of the federal prison system.

The federal prison population is only about 10 percent of the nationwide incarcerated population and on average is made up of the most dangerous criminals, particularly the ones serving for drug trafficking. While supporters of the bill argue that incarceration rates in the United States are at record levels broadly, that is simply not true, particularly in federal prison. The federal prison population shrank by 17.6 percent in raw numbers from 2013 to the present. State prison populations have declined every year for the past decade, and with the population growing, the percentage of adults in the U.S corrections system (combined federal and state) is lower than at any time since 1993.

Those who remain in federal prisons often have significant criminal records in the state system and typically plead down from more serious charges. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 72.8 percent of those convicted in the federal system in 2016 had prior convictions, and those with prior convictions had an average of 6.1.

Proponents of the bill say that convicts must participate in recidivism reduction programs in order to obtain early release, but these programs are ill-defined as “productive activities.” Congress delegated the design of these programs to the administrative state, abdicating its responsibility to make clear laws to unelected bureaucrats who change priorities and policies with every new presidential administration. There are already numerous recidivism reduction programs that are either mandatory or have high rates of participation, yet nothing in this bill ensures that prisoners have to engage in anything more substantial than what is already law, much less proven activities that will reform them.

According to Bureau of Justice statistics, states’ experiments with similar recidivism reduction programs fostering early release resulted in 68 percent of released state prisoners being re-arrested within three years, 79 percent within six years, and 83 percent within nine years. Most importantly, 77 percent of released drug offenders were arrested for a non-drug crime within nine years, and more than a third were arrested for a violent crime.

Finally, proponents of the bill argue that the early release only applies to nonviolent criminals. Yet leaders in Congress like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., confirmed that several violent crimes ranging from assaulting a law enforcement officer to first-time assault with intent to commit rape were not excluded by the First Step Act. Cotton offered amendments to the legislation that sought to exclude more classes of sex offenders and violent criminals, to require the government to notify victims of a crime before prisoners are released, and to require the Bureau of Prisons to track the re-arrest rates of those who are released early. Those amendments and other important amendments that would have strengthened the bill and corrected several of these problems were rejected by the Senate before the bill was passed.

The conservative prison reforms pursued by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s strengthened sentencing laws and led to a significant drop in crime across all categories of offenses in the 1990s. The First Step Act embraces an opposing philosophy of criminal justice and takes a step backward in protecting Americans from violent criminals.

For more of Conservative Review’s coverage of the First Step Act, click here.

The U.S. Senate voted to pass the First Step Act on December 18, 2018, at 8:22 p.m. in a roll call vote of 87 – 12.

The House of Representatives voted to pass the Senate version of the bill on December 20, 2018 at 1:58 p.m. in a roll call vote of 358 – 36.

To see how your elected officials stack up or other votes that compose the Liberty Score, view our full scorecard here.

Conservative position: NO


U.S. Senate

YEAs — 87

Alexander (R-TN)
Baldwin (D-WI)
Bennet (D-CO)
Blumenthal (D-CT)
Blunt (R-MO)
Booker (D-NJ)
Boozman (R-AR)
Brown (D-OH)
Burr (R-NC)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Capito (R-WV)
Cardin (D-MD)
Carper (D-DE)
Casey (D-PA)
Cassidy (R-LA)
Collins (R-ME)
Coons (D-DE)
Corker (R-TN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Cortez Masto (D-NV)
Crapo (R-ID)
Cruz (R-TX)
Daines (R-MT)
Donnelly (D-IN)
Duckworth (D-IL)
Durbin (D-IL)
Ernst (R-IA)
Feinstein (D-CA)
Fischer (R-NE)
Flake (R-AZ)
Gardner (R-CO)
Gillibrand (D-NY)
Grassley (R-IA)
Harris (D-CA)
Hassan (D-NH)
Hatch (R-UT)
Heinrich (D-NM)
Heitkamp (D-ND)
Heller (R-NV)
Hirono (D-HI)
Hoeven (R-ND)
Hyde-Smith (R-MS)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Johnson (R-WI)
Jones (D-AL)
Kaine (D-VA)
King (I-ME)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Lankford (R-OK)
Leahy (D-VT)
Lee (R-UT)
Manchin (D-WV)
Markey (D-MA)
McCaskill (D-MO)
McConnell (R-KY)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Merkley (D-OR)
Moran (R-KS)
Murphy (D-CT)
Murray (D-WA)
Nelson (D-FL)
Paul (R-KY)
Perdue (R-GA)
Peters (D-MI)
Portman (R-OH)
Reed (D-RI)
Roberts (R-KS)
Sanders (I-VT)
Schatz (D-HI)
Schumer (D-NY)
Scott (R-SC)
Shaheen (D-NH)
Smith (D-MN)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Tester (D-MT)
Thune (R-SD)
Tillis (R-NC)
Toomey (R-PA)
Udall (D-NM)
Van Hollen (D-MD)
Warner (D-VA)
Warren (D-MA)
Whitehouse (D-RI)
Wicker (R-MS)
Wyden (D-OR)
Young (R-IN)

NAYs — 12

Barrasso (R-WY)
Cotton (R-AR)
Enzi (R-WY)
Kennedy (R-LA)
Kyl (R-AZ)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Risch (R-ID)
Rounds (R-SD)
Rubio (R-FL)
Sasse (R-NE)
Shelby (R-AL)
Sullivan (R-AK)

Not Voting — 1

Graham (R-SC)


House of Representatives*

*Minority party (Democrats) in italics.

YEAs — 358

Adams
Aguilar
Allen
Amash
Amodei
Arrington
Bacon
Balderson
Banks (IN)
Barletta
Barr
Barragán
Barton
Bass
Beatty
Bera
Bergman
Beyer
Bilirakis
Bishop (GA)
Bishop (UT)
Blackburn
Blum
Blumenauer
Blunt Rochester
Bonamici
Bost
Boyle, Brendan F.
Brady (PA)
Brady (TX)
Brat
Brooks (IN)
Brown (MD)
Brownley (CA)
Buchanan
Bucshon
Budd
Burgess
Bustos
Butterfield
Calvert
Carbajal
Cárdenas
Carson (IN)
Carter (GA)
Cartwright
Castor (FL)
Castro (TX)
Chabot
Cheney
Chu, Judy
Cicilline
Clark (MA)
Clarke (NY)
Clay
Cleaver
Clyburn
Coffman
Cohen
Cole
Collins (GA)
Collins (NY)
Comer
Conaway
Connolly
Cook
Cooper
Correa
Costello (PA)
Courtney
Cramer
Crawford
Crist
Cuellar
Culberson
Cummings
Curbelo (FL)
Curtis
Davidson
Davis (CA)
Davis, Rodney
DeFazio
DeGette
Delaney
DeLauro
DelBene
Demings
Denham
DeSaulnier
DesJarlais
Deutch
Diaz-Balart
Dingell
Doggett
Donovan
Doyle, Michael F.
Duncan (TN)
Dunn
Ellison
Emmer
Engel
Eshoo
Espaillat
Estes (KS)
Esty (CT)
Evans
Faso
Ferguson
Fitzpatrick
Fleischmann
Flores
Fortenberry
Foster
Foxx
Frankel (FL)
Frelinghuysen
Fudge
Gabbard
Gaetz
Gallagher
Gallego
Garamendi
Garrett
Gianforte
Gibbs
Gomez
Gonzalez (TX)
Goodlatte
Gottheimer
Gowdy
Granger
Graves (GA)
Graves (LA)
Graves (MO)
Green, Al
Green, Gene
Griffith
Grijalva
Grothman
Guthrie
Handel
Harper
Harris
Hartzler
Heck
Hensarling
Hern
Herrera Beutler
Hice, Jody B.
Higgins (NY)
Hill
Himes
Hollingsworth
Hoyer
Huffman
Huizenga
Hunter
Hurd
Jackson Lee
Jayapal
Jeffries
Johnson (GA)
Johnson (LA)
Johnson (OH)
Johnson, E. B.
Jones (MI)
Jordan
Joyce (OH)
Kaptur
Katko
Kelly (IL)
Kelly (MS)
Kelly (PA)
Kennedy
Khanna
Kihuen
Kildee
Kilmer
King (NY)
Kinzinger
Knight
Krishnamoorthi
Kuster (NH)
Labrador
LaHood
Lamb
Lamborn
Lance
Langevin
Larsen (WA)
Larson (CT)
Latta
Lawrence
Lawson (FL)
Lee
Lesko
Levin
Lewis (GA)
Lewis (MN)
Lieu, Ted
Lipinski
LoBiondo
Loebsack
Lofgren
Long
Loudermilk
Lowey
Lucas
Luetkemeyer
Luján, Ben Ray
Lynch
MacArthur
Maloney, Carolyn B.
Maloney, Sean
Marino
Marshall
Massie
Mast
Matsui
McCarthy
McCaul
McClintock
McCollum
McEachin
McGovern
McHenry
McKinley
McMorris Rodgers
McNerney
McSally
Meadows
Meeks
Meng
Mitchell
Moolenaar
Mooney (WV)
Moore
Morelle
Moulton
Murphy (FL)
Nadler
Napolitano
Neal
Newhouse
Nolan
Norcross
Nunes
O’Halleran
O’Rourke
Olson
Pallone
Panetta
Pascrell
Paulsen
Payne
Pelosi
Perlmutter
Perry
Peters
Pingree
Pocan
Poe (TX)
Poliquin
Price (NC)
Quigley
Raskin
Reed
Reichert
Renacci
Rice (NY)
Richmond
Roe (TN)
Rogers (KY)
Rohrabacher
Rooney, Francis
Rooney, Thomas J.
Ros-Lehtinen
Roskam
Rothfus
Roybal-Allard
Royce (CA)
Ruiz
Ruppersberger
Rush
Russell
Rutherford
Ryan (OH)
Sánchez
Sarbanes
Scalise
Scanlon
Schakowsky
Schiff
Schneider
Schrader
Schweikert
Scott (VA)
Scott, Austin
Sensenbrenner
Serrano
Sessions
Sewell (AL)
Sherman
Shimkus
Shuster
Simpson
Sires
Smith (NJ)
Smith (TX)
Smith (WA)
Smucker
Soto
Speier
Stefanik
Stewart
Stivers
Suozzi
Takano
Taylor
Tenney
Thompson (CA)
Thompson (PA)
Thornberry
Tipton
Titus
Tonko
Torres
Tsongas
Turner
Upton
Valadao
Vargas
Veasey
Velázquez
Visclosky
Wagner
Walberg
Walden
Walker
Walorski
Wasserman Schultz
Waters, Maxine
Watson Coleman
Webster (FL)
Welch
Wenstrup
Westerman
Wild
Williams
Wilson (FL)
Wittman
Womack
Woodall
Yarmuth
Yoder
Yoho
Young (IA)
Zeldin

NAYS — 36

Abraham
Aderholt
Babin
Biggs
Brooks (AL)
Buck
Byrne
Carter (TX)
Cloud
Duffy
Gohmert
Gosar
Higgins (LA)
Holding
Hudson
King (IA)
Kustoff (TN)
LaMalfa
Marchant
Mullin
Norman
Palazzo
Palmer
Pearce
Posey
Rice (SC)
Roby
Rogers (AL)
Rokita
Rouzer
Sanford
Smith (MO)
Smith (NE)
Weber (TX)
Wilson (SC)
Young (AK)

 NOT VOTING — 38

Bishop (MI)
Black
Capuano
Comstock
Costa
Crowley
Davis, Danny
Duncan (SC)
Gutiérrez
Hanabusa
Hastings
Hultgren
Issa
Jenkins (KS)
Johnson, Sam
Jones (NC)
Keating
Kind
Love
Lowenthal
Lujan Grisham, M.
Messer
Noem
Peterson
Pittenger
Polis
Ratcliffe
Rosen
Ross
Scott, David
Shea-Porter
Sinema
Swalwell (CA)
Thompson (MS)
Trott
Vela
Walters, Mimi
Walz

*Minority party (Democrats) in italics.

Author: CR Staff