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Cornyn's Push For Federal Prison Reform Helps First Step Act Clear U.S. Senate

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, at the 2017 Texas Tribune Festival.
Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, at the 2017 Texas Tribune Festival.

The U.S. Senate passed a major overhaul of the country's federal prison system Tuesday evening. The 87-12 vote is likely to be the toughest hurdle for the legislation, which is expected to easily pass the U.S. House and be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

The First Step Act's aim is to save on federal incarceration spending and prepare inmates for re-entry into society. It is among few pieces of legislation with wide bipartisan backing in the Trump era. But Republican John Cornyn, Texas' senior U.S. senator, has plugged away at the issue, session after session, long before it was in vogue. Its passage in the upper chamber Tuesday will be one of Cornyn's final votes as the GOP Senate majority whip, a powerful position he terms out of in January.

Fellow Texas Republican, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, also voted for the legislation.

Federal policy advocates and Cornyn, a former state attorney general and state supreme court justice, modeled their approach at an overhaul on former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's efforts to reduce the state's prison population.

“The foundation of this legislation is based on the successful prison reform efforts in states like Texas, Georgia, Rhode Island, and other places, where we finally realized that being smart on crime is more important than just being tough on crime," Cornyn said at a recent news conference. "And by that, I mean that people who go to prison get out of prison, and the question is: Are they going to be better prepared than when they went in, when they come out to meet the challenges of living a lawful, orderly life?”

Criminal justice reform is a rare policy area that attracts advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. The roots of the exploding American prison population came about in the 1980s and 1990s, when crime rates soared. Elected officials and hopeful officeholders found that projecting a "tough on crime" image was a political winner, and lawmakers at the state and federal levels passed severe mandatory sentencing laws. That led to swelling prison populations and massive penitentiary construction.

But the policies had massive social implications.

For many liberals, the disproportionately higher rates at which people of color were incarcerated is unacceptable. Meanwhile, many conservatives began to grow wary of the costs of incarcerating prisoners serving sentences that, in retrospect. did not match their crimes.

All 12 votes in opposition came from Republicans. Before the vote, critics said they feared the legislation will let violent criminals back into the public.

Cornyn's bill will require the Department of Justice to move low-risk inmates to less expensive and less restrictive confines, allow inmates to reduce their sentences if they participate in programs designed to reduce their risk of reoffending, limit the use of restraints on pregnant prisoners, work on reducing prison rape, improve prison guard training and enhance prisoner preparation for re-entry into society.

Outgoing U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, supports the bill. It is expected to easily pass the chamber he oversees in the final days of this Congressional term. Trump is also a supporter, along with senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, his influential son-in-law. Kushner's father served time in federal prison. The presidential adviser often visited his dad there.

After a Monday procedural vote, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell singled out Cornyn for credit in a statement.

"Particular credit for this belongs to Senator Cornyn, who has carefully and impressively balanced his role as Majority Whip with his own personal support for this legislation," said the Kentucky Republican. "His leadership has benefitted everyone who shares his position and would like to see this bill become law, and he deserves every bit of their gratitude.”

Abby Livingston joined the Tribune in 2014 as the publication's first Washington Bureau Chief. Previously, she covered political campaigns, House leadership and Congress for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. A seventh-generation Texan, Abby graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Fort Worth and has appeared in an episode of "The Bold and The Beautiful." Abby pitched and produced political segments for CNN and worked as an editor for The Hotline, National Journal’s campaign tipsheet. Abby began her journalism career as a desk assistant at NBC News in Washington, working her way up to the political unit, where she researched stories for Nightly News, the Today Show and Meet the Press. In keeping with the Trib’s great history of hiring softball stars, Abby is a three-time MVP (the most in game history —Ed.) for The Bad News Babes, the women’s press softball team that takes on female members of Congress in the annual Congressional Women’s Softball breast cancer charity game.