Daines, Tester join Senate majority in passing criminal justice reform bill

Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines on Tuesday joined a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system, saying the changes will reduce recidivism and fix broken sentencing laws.

The bill has the support of President Donald Trump and will go to the House for consideration. It passed the Senate on a vote of 87-12.

“This bipartisan bill takes important, commonsense steps forward to fix our criminal justice system and address overly-harsh sentencing laws,” Tester said in a statement. “When signed into law, this bill will reward good behavior, end unduly harsh penalties for minors, expand judicial discretion by easing certain mandatory minimum sentences, and improve the health of female prisoners.”

Among other things, the First Step Act cuts back on mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes and gives judges more discretion when sentencing.

It also increases access to vocational and rehabilitative programs for federal inmates, and adds “good time credit,” allowing prisoners to earn time off their sentences for good behavior.

Daines said he worked to ensure provisions for sex offenders and meth dealing were included in the bill.

“We need to make sure we have every tool available to fight against an epidemic (meth) that is tearing families apart and increasing violent crimes in our state,” Daines said. “I’m glad to have worked to ensure high level meth dealers and sex offenders are excluded from the benefits of the First Step Act to help protect Montana families and communities.”

The First Step Act only addresses the federal prison system, which includes roughly 200,000 inmates, according to the most recent data. Missoula County and a team of advocates are working to implement reforms at the local level, in part to address overcrowding.

In October, the county received a $700,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to continue those reforms, including the addition of addiction services, a cultural liaison for Native American inmates, and a jail diversion program.

“The end goal is to reduce the jail population by 18 to 22 percent over the next two years,” Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley told the Missoula Current in October.