House Passes Bill Clarifying Early Release for Elderly Prisoners

first step act, prison reform bill, prison reform
L-R: The legislation’s House sponsors, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday clarifying a portion of the recently passed prison-reform bill, resulting in earlier release for elderly prisoners.

A provision of the First Step Act, the prison-reform bill that passed Congress and was signed into law last year by President Donald Trump, allows non-violent federal prisoners at low risk of re-offending to leave prison for home detention once they have reached the age of 60 and served two-thirds of their sentence. But the statutory language, and a previous federal court ruling regarding a similar law, indicated that the two-thirds mandatory time served is to be calculated from the full sentence, not including time off for good behavior. For example, a prisoner sentenced to ten years, with the standard 15% time off for good behavior, would only serve eight-and-a-half years. Once he reaches 60, would he get out after serving two-thirds of ten years (six-and-two-thirds years) or two-thirds of eight-and-a-half years (five-and-two-thirds years)?

The new legislation amends the First Step Act to make clear that the two-thirds will be calculated by including “credit toward the service of the prisoner’s sentence.”

The legislation passed the House by unanimous consent Tuesday, despite having received eight “no” votes in the House Judiciary Committee, all from Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus.

“I am heartened by the bipartisan support for this bill in the House,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), “and urge the Senate to pass it as soon as possible.”

The bill’s fate in the Senate is uncertain. Though the First Step Act ultimately passed both houses of Congress with large bipartisan majorities, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was reluctant to put it up for a floor vote due to opposition from some conservative senators. Hesitant to risk splitting his caucus, McConnell eventually did allow a vote following heavy lobbying from the White House.

The bill’s House sponsors said the legislation is beneficial for reasons of both justice and economics.

“Not only is this the right thing to do,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), “but it will also reduce federal costs in our prison system.”

Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), said the bill “will ensure our prisons do not become nursing homes, it will save taxpayer dollars and it will reward inmates who serve their time with good behavior.”

Advocates are hopeful that Tuesday’s unanimous-consent passage will bring on board at least some of the few Senate Republican opponents, and that McConnell will bring this up for a vote soon.

“This fair, non-controversial but very important bill will help many elderly inmates and encourage good behavior,” prison-reform activist Moshe Margaretten told Hamodia. “There are many elderly inmates who suffer due to lack of proper medical care and poor diet, and whose families miss them terribly. This was our passion behind this bill, and we are confident that with G-d’s help it will pass into law.”

“In the current climate in Washington, unanimous approval of anything is extraordinary, and demonstrates the appropriateness of this bill,” prison-reform attorney Gary Apfel told Hamodia.

Updated Wednesday, December 4, 2019 at 1:16 am .