Now that former attorney general Jeff Sessions is out of the picture, President Trump seems to be warming up to the idea of sentencing and prison reform, which could set up a bipartisan win for his administration if it can make it through Congress in the last few weeks of the year
On Wednesday, Trump backed a working Senate package on the First Step Act that would roll back some of the existing harsh penalties for low-level, non-violent drug offenders, such as mandatory minimum sentences. The proposal would begin the slow process of reversing the effects of tough-on-crime policies passed during the ‘80s and ‘90s, which have adversely impacted African Americans and Latinos, and have been responsible, in part, for the U.S. imprisoning 2.3 million people, more per capita, than any other nation.
The bill already passed the House in May with bipartisan support and has now moved onto the Senate, with some major changes. Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has long called for sentencing reform and found an unlikely ally in Trump’s own son-in-law and senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner. Grassley is co-sponsor on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and the New York Times reported Grassley played a major part in crafting the recent Senate compromise.
As a hard liner on criminal justice policies, Sessions said he worried the bill would risk “putting the very worst criminals back into our communities” and did his part to keep the reform efforts under wraps. Trump, however, had previously said he’d “overrule” Sessions and gave his full support to the Senate bill on Wednesday.
“We’re treating people differently for different crimes,” Trump said during a press conference Wednesday. “Some people got caught up in situations that were very bad.”
What’s in the bill?
Apart from allowing more leeway in mandatory minimum sentences, the draft bill could:
- Extend an Obama-era law that got rid of the sentencing differences between people carrying powder cocaine and crack-cocaine, since crack users often saw harsher sentences. The new bill could apply that law retroactively, which would affect thousands of crack-cocaine users already in prison serving lengthy sentences.
- Lower sentencing under the federal “three strikes” laws, which 28 states have implemented from a life sentence to a maximum of 25 years in prison in some cases. The “three strikes” penalty punishes repeat offenders who commit two violent felonies and have one other felony conviction, regardless of its severity, from a federal or state court.
- Better prepare people for life after prison by assessing their risks and needs, while also creating incentives to participate in job-training programs that could allow for earlier prison release and a chance at a job after they get out.
- Outright ban the shackling of pregnant women behind bars, according to the New York Times, and work to ensure prisoners are placed in facilities closer to their families so they can have proper visitations.
Will the bill pass?
Right now, passing sentencing reforms looks politically safer than ever, but that doesn’t mean the bill will breeze through before the end of the year.
Trump made a remarkable about-face after meeting with Kim Kardashian West in May when he granted clemency to a Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old grandmother serving a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense. The president, however, had previously adopted a “lock ‘em up” attitude and even suggested that drug dealers face the death penalty. He also emphasized in his prepared remarks supporting the new reform bill that he wants to stay tough on some offenders.
“In many respects, we’re getting very much tougher on the truly bad criminals — of which, unfortunately, there are many,” Trump said during prepared remarks Wednesday.
Although no Democrats were present at the event, many support the version of bill that easily passed the House in May. Grassley released a joint statement with Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois in support of Trump’s position on Wednesday. And other Republicans Rep. Paul Ryan to the Koch brothers have also widely called for criminal justice reform.
Several groups representing police officers and law enforcement — including the Fraternal Order of Police — have also backed the bill. “Hundreds of conservative organizations and leaders support this legislation,” according to a White House fact sheet.
Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, noted that Congress has limited time to pass the bill. And some Republicans, like Sen. Tom Cotton, remain starkly against the reforms.
“We need to take a whip count and see where we stand. And then weigh it against the other things that absolutely have to be accomplished,” McConnell told reporters, according to Politico. “We don’t have a whole lot of time left.”
Cover image: President Donald Trump smiles as he speaks about H. R. 5682, the "First Step Act" in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, which would reform America's prison system. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)