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Trump on Criminal Justice Reform: ‘It Has Tremendous Support No Matter Where We Go’

First Step Act is aimed at helping inmates leave jail and their criminal lives behind

President Donald Trump hosted a roundtable of experts and advocates on Monday evening in Gulfport, Mississippi, to discuss a bipartisan criminal reform bill known as the First Step Act, and quickly noted the “tremendous support” the legislation has already.

“We’re here today to discuss a landmark prison reform bill called the First Step Act,” Trump said in opening the discussion. “This legislation will help former inmates re-enter society as law-abiding citizens. And it has tremendous support no matter where we go — tremendous support beyond anything I would have expected.”

Many more former inmates are getting jobs, Trump added, as the demand for workers increases in a tightening labor market. He welcomed the roundtable participants, who included Vice President Mike Pence, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and law enforcement officials.

The president’s son-in-law, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner — who’s been at the forefront of creating the bill — also joined the conversation.

“We’ve been negotiating hard with the Democrats in Congress and with the Republicans for the last year-and-a-half to try to get to this compromise, because these are very tricky issues and you have to make sure all the different voices are heard, especially the law enforcement community, which we spent a lot of time engaging with,” Kushner said.

“They made a lot of changes along the way that have made it a much better bill,” he added.

The First Step Act is aimed at reforming the criminal justice system in a way that helps inmates leave jail — and their criminal lives — behind. The bill amends the federal criminal code to establish a system for rehabilitating inmates by incentivizing them to partake in programs that will help them re-enter society.

Mississippi has implemented similar reforms aimed at rehabilitation and transitioning former inmates. Several law enforcement officials from the state shared their perspectives on the reforms they implemented and the First Step Act. Mississippi Assistant District Attorney Angel Myers McIlrath said she believes the bill will work.

“As prosecutors, we basically have two categories of offenders we deal with,” McIlrath said. “We have the violent, major drug traffickers that need to be in prison to protect society. Then we have this category of people who are low-risk, who can be rehabilitated. Criminal justice reform in Mississippi is working.”

The issue of criminal justice reform has been debated for many years, with prisons filled to the brim and seemingly countless stories of nonviolent criminals facing harsh sentences. But in recent years, criminal justice reform has expanded beyond liberal and libertarian advocates to become a major political issue embraced across the political spectrum.

“What they left intact is our ability to deal with these dangerous offenders and keep them in prison, but [to] open the door for more people to be eligible for alternative sentencing, like the recidivism reduction program or our drug courts,” McIlrath said.

“Our drug courts are a Mississippi success story. Those are things that are important to prosecutors. I can say that it is working here and I believe your act is going to work as well,” she added.

The U.S. Department of Justice found that an estimated 2,162,400 people were being incarcerated in federal and state prisons and county jails in 2016. The rate fell for nine consecutive years prior to that point, but it still represents 830 of every 100,000 adults in the country.

“Thank you for including law enforcement in this important conversation,” said Marshall Fisher, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, during the discussion. He also called himself an “old dinosaur who [once] didn’t think the way I do now. We realize now — law enforcement — that we can’t arrest our way out of these situations.”

Trump and a large bipartisan coalition of lawmakers are pushing for the proposal. The First Step Act will promote prisoner participation in vocational training, educational coursework or faith-based programs to help this population successfully transition back into society.

“We realize there are people who need to be in prison, but for the most part there [are] a lot of people we can put back on the street with investment and transitional housing.”

This will help these individuals gain job skills, drug treatment and education. Prisoners, in return, will be able to earn credits that reduce the amount of time they spend in prison.

“We realize there are people who need to be in prison, but for the most part there [are] a lot of people we can put back on the street with investment and transitional housing,” Fisher said. “Investments in alcohol and drug treatments, drug courts, mental health courts … these are things that guys like me didn’t believe years ago. Now we do.”

The First Step Act has some opponents, despite the amount of bipartisan support it’s been getting. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has notably warned that the bill is deceptive. He took issue with the idea that the bill doesn’t give inmates early release and noted provisions would actually allow violent drug offenders a much earlier release.

“Assume this trafficker has a prior serious drug felony,” Cotton said in a tweet. “Under current law, minimum 20-year sentence. Under the First Step Act, reduced to 15 years, or 5 years earlier release.”

The legislation will place federal inmates closer to their communities in order to facilitate family visitations. The proposal will additionally reform mandatory minimum policies to decrease racially discriminatory outcomes, overcrowded prisons and costs.

The proposal will also eliminate the three-strike mandatory life provision for nonviolent criminals. Certain nonviolent offenders will be able to petition the courts for a review of their sentence. A judge can then make a decision on whether to reduce a sentence after reviewing all circumstances — including public safety, the person’s criminal history, and the actual offense.

The White House notes that seven major police organizations, more than 2,700 faith and evangelical leaders, and hundreds of conservative organizations and leaders support the legislation.

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Connor D. Wolf covers Congress and national politics and can be reached at [email protected].