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Trump endorses bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the “First Step Act” in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the “First Step Act” in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday threw his support behind legislation that would loosen some mandatory minimum sentencing laws - a measure backed by powerful Senate Republicans and Democrats but that could run into opposition from some tough-on-crime conservatives.

At an afternoon event at the White House, Trump officially endorsed the “First Step Act,” which he said included “reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off our streets.” He urged lawmakers to send him a bill, saying: “I’ll be waiting with a pen.”

“Today’s announcement shows that true bipartisanship is possible,” Trump said. “This is a big breakthrough for a lot of people . . . they’ve been talking about this for many, many years.”

Trump was privately briefed on the legislation’s contents at a meeting Tuesday. There, he signaled he was favorable to the bill, but did not explicitly commit one way or the other - and indicated he would like more law enforcement groups to endorse the measure.

The influential Fraternal Order of Police, the world’s largest group of sworn law enforcement officials, endorsed the latest compromise - giving momentum to the bill.

Former attorney general Jeff Sessions was an avowed opponent of any measure that would relax sentencing laws, but he resigned from his post last week. Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, has worked closely on the criminal justice issue for months.

The compromise criminal justice measure, which was hammered out in principle this summer by a bipartisan group of senators, adds four provisions to a House-passed bill that focused on reducing prisoner recidivism and did not include the more controversial sentencing changes.

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The new Senate package includes language that lowers mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies, including reducing the “three-strike” penalty from life behind bars to 25 years. That provision would not be allowed to take place retroactively, a major concession from Democrats.

It also would include Senate language that retroactively applies the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduces the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine offenses. And it would reduce mandatory minimum sentences that go into effect when a firearm is used during a violent crime or drug offense. The latter also would not apply to people already sentenced for these crimes.

The agreement also lets judges take advantage of “safety valves” - which allow them to issue sentences shorter than mandatory minimums for low-level crimes - in more types of cases.

Senators have also added language that would bar prisoners who had been convicted of certain fentanyl offenses - primarily those that involved five- and 10-year mandatory minimums - from being able to receive credit for time served,

“We’re not there yet, but I’ve never felt better about it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who spoke with Kushner on Wednesday morning.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chief Democratic negotiator on the bill, will work on rounding up votes on his side, but could struggle with the more liberal members of his caucus who dislike the concessions made to Republicans.

Even if the bill gets through the Senate, it has to pass the House again since it revises a prison reform bill the House cleared earlier this year. Supporters will now begin rounding up votes in favor of the compromise, but Trump’s endorsement of the measure could ease Republican resistance to the changes.

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