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Inside the "First Step" Prison Reform bill

             11/21/2018

President Trump

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

President Trump threw his support behind a substantial revision of the nation’s prison and sentencing laws.

Labeled as the First Step Act, the bill builds on a prison overhaul bill already passed overwhelmingly by the House by adding changes that would begin to unwind some of the tough-on-crime federal policies of the 1980s and 1990s that incarcerated African-American offenders at much higher rates than white offenders. It also allows new funding for anti-recidivism programs, expansion of early release credits for prisoners and a reduction in certain mandatory sentencing.

“In many respects, we’re getting very much tougher on the truly bad criminals — of which, unfortunately, there are many,” said Mr. Trump, flanked by Republican lawmakers and law enforcement officials. “But we’re treating people differently for different crimes. Some people got caught up in situations that were very bad.” “It’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Trump added.

The bill has bipartisan support, including the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch on the right and the American Civil Liberties Union on the left. Conservatives see this as a way to cut the high cost of the prison population, liberals see this as a way to stop what they believe is unfairly incarcerating young minority men.

“Criminal justice has gone from being the ultimate wedge issue to the most meaningful area of bipartisan agreement,” said Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y.U. School of Law and a frequent Trump critic on policy. “It’s a strange and ironic twist to have the president’s support push it over the finish line.”

The legislation would also improve conditions for incarcerated women, prohibiting the shackling of female inmates while pregnant, and would require the Bureau of Prisons to locate prisoners in facilities close to their homes, if possible.

The Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police organization, said last Friday that it would support the bill, and the National Sheriffs’ Association appeared to have dropped some previous objections after exceptions were made to block certain fentanyl offenders from eligibility for “good-time credits”, which was included in the prison overhaul portion of the bill.

But powerful pockets of opposition remain among some law enforcement officials and conservative lawmakers — like Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas — who argue that sentencing changes like those proposed pose a risk to public safety. However, they lost a powerful ally within the administration when Mr. Trump fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, last week. Mr. Sessions’s temporary replacement, Matthew G. Whitaker, has signaled that he is more open to the changes.

The bill has its detractors such as Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas who believes that sentencing changes pose a risk to public safety.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin committed to putting the compromise on the House floor in a lame-duck session that began on Tuesday if Mr. Trump endorsed it and it can clear the Senate. “Redemption is at the heart of the American idea, and that’s what this is about,” Mr. Ryan said in a statement. “The president’s announcement is an encouraging sign that we can achieve substantive reforms to our criminal justice system in this Congress.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he believes that there is enough bipartisan support to pass criminal justice reform legislation. "Let’s start 2019 on a positive note," Graham said. "I’m urging Sen. McConnell to bring the bill to the floor of the Senate. It would get 80 votes. Mr. President, pick up the phone and push the Republican leadership."

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he believes there is a “real chance” to pass the legislation. “With President Trump being in favor of this criminal justice reform, he came out publicly for it, really it only depends on one senator now. If Sen. Mitch McConnell, from my home state, will allow a vote, it gets 65 to 70 votes in the Senate. It'll be one of the most popular things to ever pass,” Paul said.

The key provisions of the bill include shortening federal three-strike drug penalties from life in prison to 25 years, reducing two-strike drug penalties from 20 years to 15, allowing a firearm sentencing enhancement to run concurrently with the underlying penalty, and allowing retroactive sentencing for crack cocaine cases judged under tougher historical laws.

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