U.S. House passes bipartisan prison reform bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan bill to reform the federal prison system by helping inmates prepare for life after their release and reduce recidivism rates passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, paving the way for it to be considered by the Senate.

FILE PHOTO: Jail cells are seen in the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit at the Rikers Island Correctional facility in New York March 12, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The First Step Act does not contain a broader overhaul favored by some moderate conservatives and progressives seeking changes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have kept many low-level offenders behind bars for decades.

The bill’s top Democratic and Republican sponsors have said such broad reforms should be left out for now as a compromise to get legislation passed by the Senate and signed into law.

“Folks, this is what legislating looks like,” Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the leading Republican sponsor of the bill, told reporters on Monday. “Sometimes there are disagreements, but you come together and you find compromise.”

The bill would require the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a part of the Justice Department, to do risk assessments on which inmates should qualify and earn credits toward completing their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.

It would broaden job opportunities for inmates, expand laws on compassionate release of prisoners, prevent the BOP from using restraints on pregnant inmates and allow prisoners to earn early release credits of up to 54 days for good behavior.

The good behavior provision would allow for the early release of an estimated 4,000 prisoners.

The House bill contrasts with one in the Senate championed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley. It would lessen prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

The White House said in a statement it was encouraged by the House vote.

“This is an important bill that promotes evidence-based programs to reduce recidivism and crime in America’s communities. Today’s strong bipartisan vote paves a path for action by the Senate,” the statement said.

How the House bill will fare in the Senate remains to be seen. While some Senate Democrats and Republicans have indicated they will support it in its current form, others may oppose the bill unless sentencing reforms are added to it.

Adding such provisions could doom the bill because more hard-line, law-and-order conservatives would then likely oppose it.

New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the leading Democratic sponsor of the measure, told reporters on Monday that lawmakers should seize the opportunity to pass some criminal justice reforms, even if they do not go far enough.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker