Trump gives thumbs up to prison sentencing reform bill at pivotal meeting
Originally published in TheHill
President Trump has told Republican senators that he’s open to a new proposal on prison and sentencing reform, giving new life to an issue that seemed hopelessly stalled on Capitol Hill.
The compromise presented to Trump by Republican senators at a White House meeting on Wednesday would combine the prison reform bill passed by the House in May — the First Step Act — with four sentencing reform provisions that have bipartisan Senate backing, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
A senior White House official described the president as “positively inclined” toward the compromise proposal. The source said Trump told GOP senators to “do some work with your colleagues” and “let's see where the Senate is and then come back to me with it.”
“We passed the First Step Act through the House, and we're working with the Senate to pass that into law. And I think we'll be able to do it,” Trump said in public comments Wednesday at a meeting with inner city pastors, according to a transcript from the White House.
The compromise offer was presented to Trump at a meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).
Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law; Shahira Knight, the new White House legislative affairs director; and White House chief of staff John Kelly also attended the White House meeting.
Attendees described Trump’s support for the initiative as a positive development for the effort to reduce mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
While getting a final bill to Trump would require a Senate vote and then winning House approval for the new package, a second source familiar with the meeting described it as “very successful.”
“It’s not done until it’s done, but we made a lot of progress,” the source said.
Grassley said afterward that he believes prison reform and sentencing reform can be moved in tandem.
“I think we made great progress so it doesn’t have to be broken up,” Grassley told reporters Thursday. “There seems to be an interest on the part of the White House now to keeping the bills together.”
Negotiators now think there’s a possibility of moving legislation through the Senate as soon as this month, though it’s more likely to wait until the lame-duck session after the midterm elections.
Conservatives such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have opposed combining prison and sentencing reform.
Cotton argued in a speech at the Hudson Institute earlier this year that “if anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.”
As a result, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) shelved the issue altogether, citing what appeared to be an implacable division within his conference.
A key force behind reinvigorating the initiative is Kushner, who is pouring his time into the effort.
“None of this would have ever happened without Kushner. He is key. I’ve never seen a White House staff person work as hard on an issue as he is on this,” Grassley said.
Grassley said Sessions should steer clear of the debate altogether.
“With all that I have done to help Sessions to keep the president from firing from him, I think Sessions ought to stay out of it,” he said.
Another potential opponent is Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn(Texas), the sponsor of Senate prison reform legislation that would shift lower-risk inmates to less restrictive conditions and promote partnerships with faith-based and charitable groups to reduce recidivism.
In February, Cornyn said he favored moving prison reform separately from sentencing reform because he thought the latter “was opposed by a number of lawmakers, preventing it from even being considered by the Senate.”
But Republican senators in favor of sentencing reform think Cornyn would vote for the proposal if it was demonstrated not to be weighing down his own bill.
Cornyn on Wednesday said he has an open mind about getting a broader criminal justice bill signed into law.
“I’d like to be able to get something important done. I think there’s a broad consensus on prison reform. The question is on sentencing reform, and we’re trying to find a way to thread the needle,” he said.
Republican negotiators say that Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) appears committed to finding a solution this year and is negotiating in good faith.
Some Democrats, however, doubt that Trump will embrace criminal justice reform legislation after making a tough-on-crime approach his political hallmark.
But the senior White House official noted that prison and sentencing reform has solid conservative support from groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the American Conservative Union, as well as evangelical voters.
“This a smart-on-crime proposal. You're making communities safer and saving taxpayers money,” the source said. “The president sees that our prison system is not perfect — that’s why he wants to improve it and why he’s been considering some appropriate commutations.”
The number of inmates in federal prisons has swelled from 25,000 in 1980 to more than 205,000 in 2015, and taxpayer spending on federal inmates has increased from $330 million to $7.5 billion over that span, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The emergent compromise proposal would make several technical changes to the House-passed First Step Act and merge it with four sentencing reforms from the Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which has a large number of co-sponsors from both parties.
“The question is how little sentencing reform we can put in there without losing the Democrats and how much we can put in there without losing more than a handful of Republicans, and we think we’ve about cracked that formula,” said a person familiar with the internal talks who briefed The Hill.
The proposed compromise would lower lifetime mandatory minimum sentences for people with prior nonviolent drug felony convictions to 25 years and reduce 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for similar offenders to 15 years.
But in an effort to reach common ground, that reform would only apply to new sentences and not to people already in jail.
Another reform would free judges from having to ratchet up sentences for drug offenders convicted on simultaneous charges.
A requirement known as the “stacking enhancement” forced judges to treat convictions on multiple charges as prior offenses and mandated harshly long punishments for nonviolent drug offenders.
In another bid to broaden political support, this reform would not apply retroactively.
A third reform would apply the Fair Sentencing Act, which Congress passed in 2010 and reduced the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses, retroactively.
That law reduced the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related crimes prospectively but only applied to new sentences. The reform now being discussed would retroactively reduce the disparity of old sentences.
The final reform would expand exceptions to the application of mandatory-minimum sentences to more people with criminal histories.