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Trump endorses easing some mandatory sentencing laws

From second left: Republican Senators Mike Lee of Utah, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, former senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and Rand Paul of Kentucky before President Trump announced his support for a criminal justice reform bill, called the First Step Act, at the White House in Washington on Wednesday.
From second left: Republican Senators Mike Lee of Utah, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, former senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and Rand Paul of Kentucky before President Trump announced his support for a criminal justice reform bill, called the First Step Act, at the White House in Washington on Wednesday.(Al Drago/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — President Trump threw his support behind a substantial rewrite of the nation’s prison and sentencing laws on Wednesday, opening a potential but narrow path to enacting the most significant criminal justice overhaul in a generation.

Trump’s endorsement is considered critical to the success of the bipartisan compromise, which would invest heavily in antirecidivism programs and lower some mandatory minimum sentences.

“It’s the right thing to do,” the president said at an event at the White House, flanked by Republican lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and others who have lobbied for the changes.

He urged Congress to promptly send him a final bill to sign. And in a reference to the tough-on-crime policies embraced by President Bill Clinton, Trump touted that the legislation would begin to roll back portions of the “Clinton crime bill” that had a “very disproportionate and very unfair” effect on black Americans.

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His 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.

But even with Trump on board, proponents must now compete with a rapidly narrowing window to move a complicated bill with broad implications for the US criminal justice system. As of Wednesday morning, many senators had not yet even seen a draft of the bill, and many conservatives were thought to be firmly against it.

“We don’t have a whole lot of time left,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, the majority leader, told reporters Wednesday. McConnell had previously pledged to take up the bill if it had at least 60 senators supporting it. But he added that given the date, he would also have to “see how it stacks up against our other priorities going into the end of our session.”

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Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and the leading advocate of the criminal justice package within the White House, presented the tentative deal to Trump on Tuesday. The president was initially noncommital but later offered a firmer yes, according to administration and congressional officials briefed on the meeting.

The tentative legislative 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 of the tough-on-crime federal policies of the 1980s and 1990s — which have incarcerated African-American offenders at much higher rates than white offenders.

The changes include shortening mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses and changing the “three strikes” penalty to 25 years from life in prison. They would give judges greater ability to use so-called safety valves to sidestep mandatory minimums in some cases. And the bill would clarify that the stacking mechanism making it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense, should apply only to individuals who have previously been convicted.

It would also 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, which were dealt with far more harshly than the same crimes involving powder cocaine. That disparity hit black Americans hard while letting many white drug dealers off with lighter punishments.

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The other half of the proposed bill creates a suite of incentives and new programs aimed at reducing recidivism rates, as well as provisions to improve conditions for incarcerated women.

The changes have attracted a broad and unusual group of supporters, such as the billionaire conservative brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch and the American Civil Liberties Union, who view similar changes on the state level as successful models for federal policy. 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.

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” 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. These opponents lost a powerful ally within the administration when Trump fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, last week. Sessions’ temporary replacement, Matthew Whitaker, has signaled that he is more open to the changes.

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Trump himself is leery of appearing weak on crime, and he has been susceptible to arguments from opponents of a sentencing overhaul that endorsing one could arm his critics. Still, Kushner has pressed the issue for months, and some of the president’s advisers say they think the effort could help improve his anemic standing with African-American voters, even if only marginally.

Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is expected to quickly introduce the legislation and ramp up his lobbying efforts.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, who has worked closely with Grassley on the issue, would be responsible for assuring Democrats that the bill’s sentencing changes were a deal worth accepting, despite some concessions from an earlier Obama-era effort. Those concessions could cost support from liberal lawmakers, who want to hold out for a more expansive sentencing rewrite.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, a vocal advocate of such changes, committed to putting the compromise on the House floor in a lame-duck session that began Tuesday if Trump endorsed it and it can clear the Senate.

Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and a frequent Trump critic on policy, sounded optimistic about the legislation.

“It’s a strange and ironic twist to have the president’s support push it over the finish line,” he said.