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With McConnell on Board, Kentucky's U.S. Senators Pave Way for Criminal Justice Reform

U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is applauding a decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring criminal justice reform to a vote by the end of the year. 

The First Step Act provides the most sweeping reforms to sentencing laws since the 1990s, including reduced prison terms for non-violent drug offenders.  Supporters of the measure say it will give judges more discretion around mandatory minimum sentences and will help reduce recidivism.

McConnell has been reluctant to commit to a vote on the bi-partisan bill because of sharp opposition from some GOP lawmakers who argue it would threaten public safety by giving early release to some felons. 

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Paul said he thinks the bill has provisions that are long overdue, such as allowing people with three strikes to have their life sentence reduced to 25 years.

"Realize that you can get three strikes for selling a certain amount of marijuana three times," stated Paul. "Marijuana is now completely legal in about a dozen states, so it doesn't make any sense to be putting people in prison for life or even 25 years for selling marijuana."

The legislation is also aimed at improving the living conditions of inmates by banning the shackling of pregnant women and assigning inmates to detention facilities closer to their families. 

Senator Paul, even enlisting the help of his wife Kelley, has spent months urging constiuents to press McConnell for a vote. The GOP leader from Louisville previously said he would not bring any criminal justice reform measure to a vote unless it was backed by at least 60 senators, but Paul said he believes the measure will pass with as many as 80 votes.  In a speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday, McConnell said President Trump’s support, along with “improvements” to the bill, prompted him to bring it to the floor.  The House version of the bill passed with overwhelming support in May. 

Senator Paul says the bill is aptly named and a good start to more comprehensive reform.  The Bowling Green Republican is sponsoring six bills on criminal justice reform and is a co-sponsor on seven more.

McConnell warned that criminal justice reform and other votes could keep Senators in Washington over the holidays.  The Republican leader said members still need to vote on government funding and a new Farm Bill, as well as confirmation of President Trump’s nominees to the executive and judiciary branches.

"Unless we approach all this work in a highly collaborative, productive way and take real advantage of unanimous consent to expedite proceedings, it is virtually certain the Senate will need to be in session between Christmas and New Year's in order to complete this work," he commented.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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