Democrats, republicans find common ground on reform behind bars

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) -- 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.

Sen. Dick Durbin -- a key member of leadership for his party -- said it will, "keep America safe, reduce the cost of incarceration and move us forward, so people coming out of prison have a productive life."

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.

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