Prison rules need fixing. Trump, Republicans and Democrats all agree

Trump deserves a tip of the hat for taking the on excesses in the criminal justice system

Published November 16, 2018 5:00PM (EST)


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Trump deserves a tip of the hat for taking the on excesses in the criminal justice system.

Even his support for a bill to rewrite sentencing and prison rules for a wide segment of non-violent inmates does not guarantee success, but all signs are present for a legitimate bipartisan response to a condition that defies partisan party lines.

That we could have such a moment in the midst of insults and vituperations against the Other Party is pretty amazing. That the subject matter could concern prison inmates and criminal justice is almost unthinkable.

It’s almost enough to see this as a good reason for the president to have dumped former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, who had opposed everything this bill is seeking to achieve. Over-imprisonment in America has long been an issue for liberals, who see undue burden on convicted non-whites, but now has attracted a number of conservative Republicans as well, who see it as a cost that can be reduced.

The Trump endorsement was considered critical to the success of a compromise for a substantial rewrite of the nation’s prison and sentencing laws, the first of its kind in a generation. Indeed, Trump took the opportunity to criticize former President Bill Clinton, whose administration passed a crime bill that toughened sentencing.

The compromise bill would invest in anti-recidivism programs and lower some mandatory minimum sentences. Required life sentences for third convictions on drug counts, for example, would be reduced to 25 years.

The New York Times report said Trump’s support “could give political cover to Republicans wary of reducing some hard-line sentencing rules for drug and other offenses, and enable the legislation’s sponsors to assemble a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats in time to move a bill before the year’s end — and before the new, divided Congress is seated.”

Still, there is not a lot of time in the lame-duck congressional session, which also must deal with a bitter budget extension, complete with a fight over money for a wall on the southern border, and the possible consideration of a new attorney general confirmation. Many conservatives, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) are firmly against the bill.

According to news reports, the leading voice in the White House for the bill was Jared Kushner, who presented the tentative deal to Trump earlier this week. Trump reportedly was initially non-committal, but later offered a firmer yes.

The package, called the First Step Act, builds on a prison overhaul bill passed overwhelmingly this year by the House by adding changes that would begin to unwind some policies that have led to incarcerating African-American offenders at much higher rates than white offenders.

The changes would give judges greater flexibility in sentencing and clarify that adding charges related to firearms could be applied only to individuals who had previously been convicted. It also would extend retroactively a reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine signed into law in 2010, which could affect thousands of drug offenders serving lengthy sentences for crack-cocaine offenses. The bill also would include incentives and new programs aimed at reducing recidivism rates, as well as provisions to improve conditions for women in prison.

The bill has attracted strange bedfellow supporters, including both the billionaire conservative brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch and the American Civil Liberties Union. Advocates on the right see an opportunity to begin to cut into the high costs of the nation’s 2.2 million-person prison population. On the left, the current sentencing laws are thought to have unfairly incarcerated a generation of young men, particularly African-American men, for drug and other nonviolent offenses. Other supporters are the Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police organization. The National Sheriffs’ Assn. said it wanted five exceptions made to block certain fentanyl offenders from eligibility for “good-time credits” included in the prison overhaul portion of the bill.

The acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, is said to be open to the changes.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is working closely with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to support the bill. Also supporting the bill is soon-departing Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).

I’ll acknowledge that despite all this, it is surprising but refreshing to see Trump and liberal Democrats on the same side for once.

By Terry H. Schwadron

MORE FROM Terry H. Schwadron

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Criminal Justice Reform Dcreport First Step Act U.s. Prison System