President Trump is on the verge of the biggest bipartisan victory of his presidency as Congress puts the finishing touches on a major overhaul of the criminal justice system, a political feat that also gives him a strong argument to take to minority communities in 2020.
The changes, which include cutting prison sentences for thousands of federal inmates, are expected to win final approval in the House this week and go to Mr. Trump, who is eager to sign it into law.
Mr. Trump will score a win that eluded his predecessor, Barack Obama, in reducing long mandatory minimum sentences and other guidelines that for decades were blamed for disparate treatment of minorities, such as punishing crack cocaine violations with imprisonment 18 times longer than for powder cocaine.
The legislation, dubbed the First Step Act, also expands job training programs to reduce recidivism, increases “good time credits” earned by inmates and relaxes the “three strikes” rule to allow judges to sentence repeat offenders to 25 years instead of mandatory life behind bars.
The president helped exert pressure on Senate Republicans to get the bill moving, and his son-in-law and top adviser, Jared Kushner, spearheaded the effort.
The bill passed the Senate in an 87-12 vote Tuesday night and sent it to the House for a final vote.
“America is the greatest Country in the world and my job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes. Congratulations to the Senate on the bi-partisan passing of a historic Criminal Justice Reform Bill,” Mr. Trump tweeted.
Critics on the left said the bill didn’t go far enough, but even Mr. Trump’s fiercest political opponents acknowledged the breakthrough.
“This bipartisan legislation will help create a more fair and just criminal justice system. It is an important step forward, but the work must continue,” tweeted Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez.
The law would potentially affect the 180,789 people in federal prisons and future inmates, not those locked up in state penitentiaries, who total more than 2 million.
An early version of the bill would have released an average of 53,000 federal inmates a year over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That would be more than a quarter of the current inmate population.
Last-minute changes made to win over key conservatives likely will reduce the releases by limiting the crimes eligible to earn “good time” credits.
Blacks make up about 38 percent of the federal prison population, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Prison reform has been a priority for civil rights activists for years.
In 2016, Mr. Trump asked for the minority vote that overwhelmingly goes to Democrats by saying, “What do you have to lose?”
With that appeal, he managed to do slightly better with black voters than 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Mr. Trump captured 8 percent of the black vote in 2016 compared with Mr. Romney’s 7 percent four years earlier.
The First Step Act demonstrates that Mr. Trump can deliver on priorities for many minority voters.
The message also dovetails with Mr. Trump’s campaign pledges to fight for America’s forgotten men and women, a refrain that could be heard echoing from Republican headquarters in Washington.
“President Trump promised to stand up for the forgotten men and women in our country. The bipartisan passage of this once-in-a-generation legislation is another promise kept and will be remembered by all for many years to come,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Cassie Smedile.
The changes to federal prisons won’t immediately change minority voters’ deeply held suspicion that Republicans are racist nor silence accusations from the left that Mr. Trump foments white nationalism. But it’s a start, said Louis L. Reed, national organizer for the justice reform group Cut50, which backed the bill.
“This is definitely legislation of goodwill, but one piece of legislation is not going to erase generations of distrust toward the Republican Party,” he said.
Mr. Reed, a 40-year-old black man, became involved in justice reform activism after spending 18 years in federal prison for bank fraud and felony possession of ammunition.
He said Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who led a failed effort to tighten early release rules in the bill, confirmed black voters’ preconceptions.
“When black and brown people are thinking of the Republican Party, the first image that comes to mind is the Tom Cottons. They get on a soapbox and try to resurrect Willie Horton and try to scare America,” he said.
Ohio pastor Darrell C. Scott, co-founder of the National Diversity Coalition for Trump, which undertakes minority outreach on behalf of the Trump campaign, said he warned Mr. Cotton that he would be branded a racist.
“I had some very, very blunt conversations,” he said on Fox News. “I told the chief of staff that Tom Cotton is going to be the new Bull Connor and Mitch McConnell will be the new George Wallace if you guys don’t let this thing go to a vote.”
Mr. Reed said the changes that passed will improve the odds that offenders get a second chance after serving their time, preventing what he called recriminalization of inmates by the justice system.
He said the moves might not be enough to make him vote for Mr. Trump in 2020, but he gave the president kudos on Twitter for his role in the legislation.
“He has to be satisfied with a tweet from me in the meantime,” Mr. Reed said.
The legislation was opposed by Horace Cooper, co-chairman of the black conservative group Project 21.
Minority communities will suffer the most when criminals are released from prison, he said.
“Poor people, who are often minorities, cannot move away and escape crime zones, so that makes blacks more likely to suffer as a result of changes like this,” he said. “What’s ironic is how many black leaders want these people released so they can come back into the communities.”
Despite his opposition to the changes, Mr. Cooper commended the president for “seeing to it that the American public sees that he wants the votes of all Americans — black, brown and white.”