A tip of the hat to The Donald for some good news in today’s Times:
President Trump has won a surprise victory on prison reform after hardline Republicans in the Senate relented to support a criminal justice bill that is expected substantially to reduce the number of prisoners.
The bipartisan First Step Act, expected to be signed into law this week, will end the “three strikes” policy, a Clinton-era law under which anyone convicted of three serious offences was jailed for life. The penalty will now be 25 years.
America’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world. Although the country has just over 4 per cent of the world’s population, it houses 22 per cent of the world’s prisoners.
Since federal sentencing guidelines were introduced in 1984, the number of prisoners has ballooned from 24,640 to more than 180,000. The Congressional Budget Office states that the reformed system could reduce jail sentences by a total 53,000 years over the next decade. Critics of the old policy argued that it was applied disproportionately to African Americans and some studies found that it failed to deter offenders.
The bill will expand programmes to reintegrate ex-convicts after release and grant relief to non-violent offenders. Prisoners jailed for drug crimes who were affected by the different mandatory sentences relating to crystallised crack cocaine and the drug in powder form will have the chance to have their cases reviewed.
From 1986 until 2010, federal policy enforced more punitive sentencing for crack cocaine than the powder form. Selling five grams of crack was punishable by a minimum of five years in jail, while the same sentence was imposed for possessing 500 grams of the powder.
The bill had the backing of people as disparate as Kim Kardashian West, the reality TV star, and the Koch brothers, the billionaire conservatives. An unlikely coalition of activists from the left and right joined to lobby for its passage.
Ultimately it was pressure from the White House that prompted Mitch McConnell, the Republican senate majority leader, to bring the First Step Act for a vote on the chamber floor, where it was passed late on Tuesday by 87 to 12.
Even last month Mr McConnell had been reluctant to bring the bill forward for a vote, saying that he would rather use the time remaining in the legislative session to confirm judges.
The Senate leader usually agrees with hardline Republicans, who claim that there is no need for prison reform, saying that changes would affect their reputation as being tough on crime.
Last week, however, Mr McConnell relented on the Senate floor “at the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation secured by several members”.
Mr Trump announced his support for the bill at a press conference last month. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Despite trying to present himself as being tough on crime, Mr Trump was swayed by Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, who strongly supported the bill.
After the successful Senate vote, Mr Trump tweeted: “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.
“This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!”
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