Where Washington and Idaho senators stand on the First Step Act

Amidst heated partisanship on every other issue, Congress seems poised to pass substantial criminal justice reforms. Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated that the First Step Act, a high-profile bill that would reform elements of the federal criminal justice system, would get a vote before the end of the year after initially resisting bringing the legislation to the Senate floor.

The bill, which has rare bipartisan support among lawmakers in Congress and interest groups (such as FreedomWorks and the American Civil Liberties Union) as well as the backing of President Donald Trump, seeks to walk back some of the tough-on-crime federal laws enacted during the '80s and '90s that critics say have contributed to mass incarceration.

Some of the components of the legislation include allowing judges to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and reducing sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine retroactively. (Harsher sentences for crack cocaine have contributed to racial disparities in the federal inmate population.) Additionally, the bill would invest $375 million in anti-recidivism programs — such as inmate job training and education programs — and prevent pregnant inmates from being shackled. While the impact of the bill on the broader American prison-inmate population is relatively small — the majority of prisoners are held in state and local jails, as opposed to federal prisons — it's still been heralded as a major step in national criminal justice reform.

It's unclear when exactly the bill will get voted on. Staff of various Washington and Idaho Senators tell the Inlander that the legislation will likely get brought to the floor early next week.

The legislation's road to potential passage has been rocky. After passing the Republican-controlled House back in May, it's since pitted some Senate Republicans against each other, which reportedly contributed to Sen. McConnell's reluctance to push the bill to a floor vote despite significant bipartisan support — one whip count logged roughly 70 out of 100 senators as supporters of the bill — and calls from Trump to send the bill to his desk.

In a statement provided to the Inlander, Sen. Patty Murray (D–WA) says that she supports the legislation. “We have an opportunity now to take an important first step toward improving a criminal justice system that too often stacks the deck against low-income Americans, people suffering from addiction and communities of color — and I hope we take it," Murray says. "By reforming sentencing for low-level nonviolent offenders, moving toward treatment and rehabilitation for people convicted of crimes involving drug use, and other important reforms in this bill, we can take an initial step to focus on efforts that truly keep our communities safe.”

Bryan Watt, press secretary for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D–WA), only says that the senator is "still reviewing the bill."

As for Idaho Senate delegation, both Republican senators have yet to make a decision. Lindsay Nothern, a spokesperson for Sen. Mike Crapo says that while Crapo is "leaning towards voting for it," he hasn't made a final decision because he doesn't have "enough information about it yet."

Similarly, Sen. James Risch is still reviewing the bill's text but won't give a definitive answer since it is "likely to be amended on the floor before final passage," spokesperson Kaylin Minton tells the Inlander.

But a statement provided by Sen. Risch indicates that he has qualms with the early release credits and sentencing reductions that may get applied to some offenders under the bill. “As a former prosecutor, I understand the need for criminal justice reform that reduces recidivism in a meaningful way and helps rehabilitate and reintegrate felons into society," Risch says. "But after witnessing heinous crimes committed at the hands of violent offenders and reoffenders, I cannot support any effort to reward criminals with shorter sentences or early release.”

This post has been updated to clarify the relationship between the Koch brothers and Freedom Works.

Open Studio at The Hive @ The Hive

Wednesdays, 4-7 p.m. Continues through Feb. 22
  • or

About The Author

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.