- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 14, 2018

President Trump on Wednesday threw his support behind a Senate compromise for prison reform legislation, casting it as a chance to usher in a new bipartisan era in Washington.

The compromise tweaks the bipartisan First Step Act that passed the House in May but stalled in the Senate, where liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans wanted to go further to change mandatory minimum sentences.

Mr. Trump said the deal wasn’t just a first step but “a big step” in overhauling criminal justice and possibly in bringing Democrats and Republicans together.

He viewed it as an opportunity to demonstrate that the two parties can work together before they face a divided government next year when Democrats take control of the House.

“Today’s announcement shows that true bipartisanship is possible and maybe it will be thriving if we are going to get something done,” said Mr. Trump, who was joined at the announcement by senators and police union officials.

The future of the First Step Act remains uncertain, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the legislation faces some high hurdles before getting a vote in the lame-duck session, including supporters finalizing language and showing they have 60 votes to pass it.

“And then [we will] weigh it at that point against the other things that absolutely have to be accomplished, one of which is how we’re going to fund the government. The other is a farm bill,” Mr. McConnell said.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, has pledged to put the compromise to a vote if it has Mr. Trump’s support.

Mr. Trump said the package, which includes inmate job training and easing of mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders, would give inmates “a second chance at life.”

“Americans from across the political spectrum can unite around prison reform legislation that will reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption,” he said.

Mr. Trump stressed that the effort has broad support among law enforcement and the faith community.

“It’s got to remain very tough on crime,” he said.

The proposed changes would:

⦁ Give judges the ability to circumvent mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes.

⦁ Apply retroactively, but not automatically, the reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine that was passed in 2010.

⦁ Direct the Federal Bureau of Prisons to assess which inmates should earn credits toward completing their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.

⦁ Provide vocational training, educational instruction and faith-based programs for inmates.

⦁ Allow federal inmates to be placed closer to home communities to facilitate family visitation.

The administration’s effort was spearheaded by Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who is credited with selling the plan to the president.

The president also pursued clemency unilaterally in isolated cases, such as commuting the prison sentence in June of Alice Johnson, a grandmother serving life in prison for drug offenses. Her case was brought to Mr. Trump’s attention by reality TV star Kim Kardashian West.

On Wednesday, the bipartisan goodwill appeared to be contagious on the prison issue.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, released a joint statement heralding the president’s support.

“President Trump’s endorsement of the bipartisan criminal justice reform compromise is an important step in our shared effort to promote safe communities and improve justice,” they said. “By preparing inmates bound for release to become productive citizens, we can reduce crime and the social and economic cost of incarceration. And by ensuring that punishments fit the crimes, we can better balance the scales of justice.”

The leading voice in the White House for the proposed changes, Mr. Kushner, worked with lawmakers of both parties for the past two years and briefed Mr. Trump on the Senate bill Tuesday. He also has had several discussions with acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who is said to be more open to the overhaul than former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Mr. Sessions, who fought the legislation and ordered his prosecutors to seek maximum penalties for criminal defendants, resigned last week at the request of Mr. Trump.

Another development that helped push the legislation forward was the concession by Democrats involving the application of sentencing changes retroactively to people currently serving prison sentences. At least some inmates will be able to apply, but it’s not clear how many people the change might affect.

A White House official said Mr. Kushner met with Mr. McConnell in September, seeking to bring the bill to a vote, but the majority leader urged the White House to postpone consideration of the bill until after the midterm elections.

The White House official said Mr. McConnell has promised to whip the measure.

“I think there is a big group of Republicans who were waiting to see what the president would do,” the official said in a briefing with reporters.

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