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Senate passes criminal justice reform bill born in Texas

Texas leaders have reason to celebrate: Nearly a decade after it began, a proposal that is designed to reduce drug crime and empty prisons of repeat offenders has passed the United States Senate.

The bipartisan bill known as the First Step Act is designed to change the way that the courts treat many drug offenders. The goal is to give judges more discretion in the way that they sentence some drug defendants. Many mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses would be lowered. Some convicted defendants would also have the chance to gain an early release by obtaining vocational education or job training while they are in prison.

It also is designed to find ways to actually rehabilitate prisoners who are convicted of drug crimes -- instead of just warehousing them in federal prisons for decades at a time.

Under the First Step Act, the Justice Department would have the task of designing a system that can be used to assess the risk that a particular defendant will re-offend. It's a move toward cost-effectiveness in American prisons and a recognition that the current system isn't working -- especially for drug offenders.

Now that it has passed the Senate, the bill has to finish its way through the House. It is largely expected to pass and be ready for the president's signature in the early part of 2019.

For something like this to come out of Texas -- a state that has been notoriously hard on criminals of all kinds in the past -- is a sure sign that there's a changing shift in social attitudes toward nonviolent drug offenses, like possession. For many defendants, especially those who ended up in trouble with the law because they are suffering from poverty and addiction, this will be a welcome reform.

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