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Trump Endorses Criminal Justice Bill, Giving Momentum to Long-Delayed Reforms

"We're all better off when former inmates can reenter society as law-abiding, productive citizens."

Mehdi Taamallah/NurPhoto/Sipa US/NewscomMehdi Taamallah/NurPhoto/Sipa US/NewscomFlanked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, President Donald Trump on Wednesday endorsed what could be the most significant rewrite of federal prison and sentencing laws in more than a decade.

At a White House event, Trump threw his weight behind the FIRST STEP Act, a bill that includes major reforms to the federal prison system, as well as four relatively modest provisions that would reduce some of the harshest mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the U.S. Code.

"I'm thrilled to announce my support for this bipartisan bill that will make our communities safer and give second chances," Trump said. "We're all better off when former inmates can reenter society as law-abiding, productive citizens."

The House passed the FIRST STEP Act in May by a wide, bipartisan margin. The House version of the bill mainly addresses prison reforms and improves reentry programs and job training for federal inmates. Among other things, it would also ban the shackling of pregnant inmates, increase the amount of "good time" inmates can earn toward shortening their sentences, and expand the Bureau of Prisons' compassionate release program for terminally ill inmates.

On Monday, the draft text of the long-awaited Senate version of the FIRST STEP Act leaked. The Senate version will include several provisions that were originally part of a bipartisan sentencing reform bill hammered out between Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D–Ill.). Those provisions would eliminate mandatory life sentences for drug offenses under a federal "three strikes" law, reduce the "stacking" of firearm penalties for certain crimes (like the kind that led to a 55-year sentence for Weldon Angelos), expand the so-called "safety valve" to give judges more discretion in sentencing, and retroactively apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010's penalty reductions to crack-cocaine offenders sentenced before the law was passed.

The last provision could affect thousands of federal drug offenders who received long mandatory minimum sentences under the now-reduced 100:1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine offenses.

"Trump is on his way to becoming the uniter-in-chief on an issue that has long divided the nation," Van Jones, a former Obama administration official and co-founder of #cut50, a criminal justice advocacy group, said in a statement. "We applaud President Trump for supporting the FIRST STEP Act. I am so glad to see him join a growing bipartisan movement that spans racial lines, geographic divides, class, and political party in support of policies that promote public safety, rehabilitation, and fairness."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) previously pledged to bring the bill to the Senate floor if it became apparent it had at least 60 votes. A whip count is expected this week to gauge support for the bill.

However, in comments to reporters today, McConnell also said the bill will have to compete with other pressing legislative priorities in the short time left in the lame-duck session of Congress.

"What I've said to the proponents is that we will first need a final agreement," McConnell said, according to The Hill. "There's been a lot of discussion but we need an actual proposal. Then we would take a whip count, see where we stand, and then weigh it at that point against the other things that absolutely have to be accomplished."

Trump's statements today were the culmination of months of battle between criminal justice reform supporters and law-and-order conservatives to sway the president's opinion on the issue.

Trump announced his support for better reentry programs for inmates in his 2017 State of the Union speech, but it was never clear if he would stomach the sentencing reforms that Senate leaders demanded.

On one side, supporting the bill, was Trump son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, celebrities like Kim Kardashian, and conservative criminal justice advocates, such as Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and the chairman of Freedom Partners.

On the other side were recently resigned Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.), who once complained that America has "an under-incarceration problem."

Cotton and Sessions relied on law enforcement opposition to bolster their claims that the FIRST STEP Act would release dangerous criminals and reduce prosecutors' ability to gain cooperation from defendants. But now Sessions is gone, and law enforcement opposition evaporated last week as it became clear Trump would support the bill.

As Reason's Scott Shackford reported Monday, the Fraternal Order of Police endorsed the bill last week, reversing its position from just a month ago. Other law enforcement organizations, such as the National District Attorney's Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, also came out in support of the FIRST STEP Act.

In a statement to Reason, Holden said FIRST STEP "will reduce crime and recidivism, save money, and help people get a much-needed second chance in life."

"We applaud the president, these senators, and members of the law enforcement community for rejecting baseless scare tactics from some opponents of criminal justice reform," Holden continued. "As conservatives in states like Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia have shown, the way to increase public safety is by being smart on crime and soft on taxpayers through evidence-based practices."

Grassley is expected to introduce the Senate version of the FIRST STEP in the next couple of days, and then all eyes will turn to McConnell.

However, Democrats' retaking of the House in the midterm elections also complicates the matter. Many progressive Democrats and advocacy groups opposed the FIRST STEP Act in the House and insisted that it include stronger sentencing reforms. Many of those same lawmakers would like to see the sentencing reforms in the Senate version be made retroactive, something that would almost surely reignite conservative opposition to the bill.

But for groups that have watched criminal justice reform sputter and die in Congress year after year, getting this far, especially with Trump in office, still seems like a notable accomplishment. Ames Grawert, senior counsel at the Brennan Center's Justice Program, said in a statement that the legislation is a "sign that even in a bitterly-divided political climate, lawmakers agree on the need to confront and solve our mass incarceration crisis,"

"The legislation is just a start towards a smarter and fairer approach," Stewart continued. "But it's an important one, and it's long past time to make these changes a reality."

Photo Credit: Mehdi Taamallah/NurPhoto/Sipa US/Newscom

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...then weigh it at that point against the other things that absolutely have to be accomplished.

    Those post offices don't name themselves.

  • XM||

    What are "other things" that are important than criminal justice reform?

    It would also help for democrats to stop creating laws that could lead to imprisonment if violated. People don't need to go to jail for breaking campaign finance laws or handing out straws.

  • XM||

    What are "other things" that are important than criminal justice reform?

    It would also help for democrats to stop creating laws that could lead to imprisonment if violated. People don't need to go to jail for breaking campaign finance laws or handing out straws.

  • sarcasmic||

    If Trump supports it then I must be against it! At least that's what everyone here tells me! Say NO to sentence reform! We need people in prisons! Pregnant inmates deserve shackles! Sick people must die in their cell! I must oppose this! Aaaauughhh!

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    It's nice when Trump does something good and we can applaud him. I don't think anyone here will have a problem with this bill.

  • UltraModerate||

    Hallelujah.

  • JesseAz||

    He does a lot of good of you can take 5 minutes to read something other than headlines.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    Many progressive Democrats and advocacy groups opposed the FIRST STEP Act in the House and insisted that it include stronger sentencing reforms.

    They wouldn't want to solve an issue that generates fundraising dollars before the MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIME!

  • John||

    Appearently doing this now prevents Congress from ever reducing these sentences again or something. Better to leave people to rot in jail in hopes of someday getting a better solution.

  • sarcasmic||

    Yeah, that's it! The perfect must be the enemy of the good! Yeah! That's my excuse to oppose this! It isn't perfect! Trump supports something that isn't perfect! He's like orange and stuff! Aaaauuugghhh!

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    Involuntary Martyrdom - it's great unless your the martyr.

  • creech||

    I wonder how the MSM will twist this into something about Trump being a racist or insane or "catering to the Koch Brothers and their corporate interests?" Or will they simply ignore this and concentrate on some Melania/Michelle spat?

  • John||

    They will just ignore it. Either that or they will suddenly awaken to the danger of Trump putting thousands of dangerous criminals on the streets. They are so stupid and shameless I wouldn't put that past them.

  • buybuydandavis||

    They will ignore it.

    Doesn't fit The Narrative.

  • UltraModerate||

    Actually, it was just announced on most of the major news networks, including CNN.

    Keep crying. The tubful of conservative tears I've been bathing in all week needs replenishing.

  • John||

    I think it is great. No one is crying here but you.

  • UltraModerate||

    Check right eye. Check left eye. No tears here. Then again, I wasn't the one bellyaching about what the media isn't covering without bothering to do a 30-second Google search.

  • Fancylad||

    Apparently the "ultra" comes from the French "ultragauche", and the "moderate" from Partei Gemäßigt.

  • JesseAz||

    It almost counters the bashing they gave trump for having the Kardashians in a month back even though it was on the same topic.

  • Lost in the Woods||

    Not sure what constitutes 'announced", but just checked cnn.com - no mention anywhere near the top of the site, and all mentions of Trump are 100% negative, as usual.

  • Dariush||

    *The tubful of conservative tears I've been bathing in all week needs replenishing.*

    Lol, you've been waiting two years to use that lame ass comeback. I look forward to two more years of watching you imbeciles running around with your hair on fire over everything Trump does. Especially when RBG croaks and gets replaced by a non leftist. The pants shitting over that is going to be glorious.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    I wonder how the MSM will twist this into something about Trump being a racist or insane or "catering to the Koch Brothers and their corporate interests?"

    It's right there in the article:

    On one side, supporting the bill, was Trump son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, celebrities like Kim Kardashian, and conservative criminal justice advocates, such as Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and the chairman of Freedom Partners.

    [emphasis added] KOCH BROTHERS!!11!!11!!!!!!!1!!!11!!!!

  • miketol||

    The media will ignore it. The media will wait until one of the prisoners released messes up again. Then they will go all Willie Horton.

  • Idle Hands||

    It would be something if Trump was the guy who decriminalized marijuana.

  • John||

    Watching reason explain how it wasn't a big deal and Trump was still really bad would be comic gold.

  • buybuydandavis||

    " especially with Trump in office "

    They will claim that Trump was the impediment to pot legalization when he legalizes pot. That's how they roll.

  • ||

    They will claim that Trump was the impediment to pot legalization when he legalizes pot.

    At best he's just continuing a trend that began under the previous administration.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    You guys are just nutty. If Trump legalized weed federally, everyone at Reason would be happy.

  • John||

    No they wouldn't. They don't seem to be very happy here. Half the article is throat clearing and bitchign about this happenign in spite of Trump.

  • Lost in the Woods||

    Sadly, I don't think they would. It seems to me that at Reason, recently at least, we must somehow dislike all that Trump does, even if it advances a libertarian agenda. This is true to an even greater degree in the broader world. A shame really. There are some things that Trump supports that are good. Others that are bad, of course. But we should support the good ones. I always thought that was part of the libertarian mindset - not support of any one politician, but support of libertarian policies, from wherever they come.

  • JesseAz||

    Did you miss the article just today trying to give Obama credit for deregulation the last 2 years?

  • PubliusVA||

    Now that Sessions is out at Justice, we'll have to watch for whether Trump's next AG is someone more open to reform in this area. Rescheduling is a major step Trump could take without Congress.

  • Bronze Khopesh||

    Criminal Justice Bill, the superhero that America both needs and wants!

  • buybuydandavis||

    " especially with Trump in office "

    Instead of saying, "Thank you, Mr. President, for bringing what we want", they paint Trump as an obstacle that had to be overcome.

    TDS.

  • John||

    Trump has always been pretty good on this issue. This is not a surprise or some kind of about face. There is no rational reason not to give him credit for this.

    But being an asshole and pretending Trump is some uniquely horrible President rather than just another President with good and bad points is what reason does.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Trump is some uniquely horrible President

    He is uniquely horrible, John. He should never be forgiven for his shameful demagoguery of achieving power by scapegoating and demonizing entire groups of people, particularly the ones who are the least powerful in the first place. You are normalizing this behavior, John, if you think that a president running around saying "Mexicans are rapists" and "the caravan is an invasion" and "let's ban Muslims" are just another forms of acceptable dialogue for any president to make. They are not. Furthermore, while all leaders rely on a mix of positive reasons for people to support them (i.e., "vote for me and I'll do these great things for you") and negative reasons for people to support them (i.e., "vote for me otherwise the other team will do bad things to you"), Trump relies FAR more on the negative side than the positive one. It's almost exclusively based on fear. He KNOWS this, and he weaponizes it to rile up his supporters.

  • JesseAz||

    God you're dumb.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Ooo witty retort! Now argue against what I wrote.

  • ThomasD||

    His response was entirely apropos to your horse shit and projection.

    Going any further might be mistaken for granting credence where none is due

  • Utilitarian||

    Trump has not always been pretty good on this issue. Trump has been all over the place as he is with almost every issue because he constantly contradicts himself. You never know what he's going to say, but it's usually based on what he thinks his audience wants to hear and how his feeling at that particular moment.

  • Rich||

    it would also ban the shackling of pregnant inmates

    Because pregnant inmates never get out of control or run away?

    Anyway, what if an inmate *identifies* as pregnant?

  • Fancylad||

    Aborting kids is leftist holy writ, so they might end up with a mixmaster and a vacuum hose spinning in up in there, regardless.

  • Tony||

    I genuinely hope Democrats supply votes to pass something like even if it is imperfect and without being afraid of giving Trump a "win." I'm shocked Mr. "execute the central park 5" of all people would support it though.

  • Lost in the Woods||

    I genuinely hope so too. Recent history does bode not well for this. From what I can tell, the 'oppose all Trump at all costs" is still one of the dominant themes in the the dem party. Maybe with control of the house, though . . .

  • Tony||

    Speaker Pelosi made a commitment to bipartisan cooperation for the common good. It's up to Republicans whether they want to go along with both this and impeaching Trump.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    " Many progressive Democrats and advocacy groups opposed the FIRST STEP Act in the House and insisted that it include stronger sentencing reforms. Many of those same lawmakers would like to see the sentencing reforms in the Senate version be made retroactive, something that would almost surely reignite conservative opposition to the bill.

    Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  • Utilitarian||

    Extremists (on both sides) don't understand the meaning of that phrase.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    "Flanked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, President Donald Trump on Wednesday endorsed what could be the most major rewrite of federal prison and sentencing laws in more than a decade."

    The man is Literally Hitler.

  • Anomalous||

    I thought GWB was literally Hitler. Everybody thinks Trump is worse than GWB. Therefore, Trump is WORSE THAN HITLER.

  • chipper me timbers||

    This is phenomenal. I'll be very impressed if this can pass and Trump signs. An actual good turn of events, a humanitarian improvement to the USA. Good job.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Another one on the plus side of my orange Hitler scoresheet.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Yikes, Trump just got some more credit to back up being the best President in 80+ years.

  • Tony||

    Is it that they allow computers into your padded cell, or haven't they caught you yet?

  • Utilitarian||

    A president who never saw a tariff he didn't like is "the best President in 80+ years"?

  • VinniUSMC||

    Let's see who can still find a way to disparage Trump for this.

    Well, Jeff got the first point. And of course Tony took the next point. Where's Artie? I'm sure he's got something rooted in "logic and reason" to add.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    "Trump signs law putting thousands of brave corrections officers out of work."

    "Trump hates public safety unions."

  • Wearenotperfect||

    Definitely a step in the right direction in improving our dysfunctional injustice system. Hopefully the states will follow suit in dramatically reforming their mass incarceration problems because that's where most of the injustices happen, at the state level! I haven't glanced at the "leaked bill" yet but hopefully it addresses Accomplice Liability Laws, I doubt that it does.

  • Salero21||

    Translation to that: More criminals getting away with Murder, more Taxes going to pay for the care of prisoners so they have a better life than their victims had after being victimized by them Criminals and Delinquents.

  • Dadlobby||

    A nice start. Now maybe they can look at female impunity letting perps off the hook due to the "pussy pass" and the gynocentric men are bad, throw them in jail sentencing disparities between men and women. Let's help out the mommies in jail, and F those deadbeat dads! Maybe start with the debtors prisons? http://nymensactionnetwork.org/dueprocess/

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