You probably haven’t heard of the FIRST STEP Act, what with Russia, Russia, Russia, the Manafort trial, the Cohen plea agreement, the beautiful young woman brutally murdered by an illegal alien in Iowa, and all the other stories the 24/7 cable news media blasts each day. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions met today at the White House, after a slap fight on Twitter, and discussed the initiative with others working on it, including Trump adviser Jared Kushner. Here’s the conclusion from the meeting – nothing will be done until after the mid-term elections. Hurry up and wait.
That’s too bad. The ball is in the Senate’s court now, since the House passed a version of the bill last May. It had the support of both President Trump and Attorney General Sessions. While I understand that Senate Majority Leader McConnell is busy getting Judge Kavanaugh confirmed and onto the Supreme Court by its opening in October, and the other pressing matters before the end of the year, there is really no perfect time for something as big as criminal justice reform. This is legacy-making work for an administration and it seems to me it will require a strong-willed, bull in a china shop approach that President Trump is famous for in getting his initiatives passed through Congress.
The main focus of the FIRST STEP Act now in the Senate is reducing recidivism and adds four provisions to overhaul the sentencing system, giving more flexibility to non-violent offenders. Kushner briefed senators during a trip to Capitol Hill after the meeting and Senator Mike Lee is optimistic that the president is onboard with his support. Just not right now.
“It’s not dead at all,” an ecstatic Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said after getting a private readout of the meeting from Kushner, who traveled to Capitol Hill later Thursday to brief key senators working on the legislative effort. “My understanding is that what he said was, okay, let’s do this but maybe not until after the elections.”
Lee, citing Kushner, said that while the major push on the issue would have to wait until after the midterms, Trump was nonetheless on board with the concepts of the compromise. He added: “We’re confident we can get the votes.”
I’m excited for #criminaljusticereform to have its day on the #Senate floor! Great meetings today, and I can’t wait to pass these much needed reforms. See my full statement here: https://t.co/IaAO1JQmZG
— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) August 23, 2018
Pres. Trump called into a meeting between Jared Kushner, Sens. Chuck Grassley & Mike Lee. Said he is willing to take up prison/sentencing reform – just has to be after the election. They will whip support then
(a decision made at the WH meeting today)
— Phil Mattingly (@Phil_Mattingly) August 23, 2018
Sessions, however, came away from the meeting issuing a different kind of statement. He is hesitant about the sentencing revisions being added to the House bill, as he fears it would lead to putting drug traffickers back on the street and increase crime in general. Frankly speaking, Sessions hasn’t exactly been gung-ho on reform from the beginning.
The Justice Department gave what appeared to be a conflicting account: “We’re pleased the president agreed that we shouldn’t support criminal justice reform that would reduce sentences, put drug traffickers back on our streets, and undermine our law enforcement officers who are working night and day to reduce violent crime and drug trafficking in the middle of an opioid crisis,” said spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores.
Right on Crime, “a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy—reforming the system to ensure public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers money” sent a letter of support to President Trump that explained the conservative approach to criminal justice reform and the success the State of Texas has seen since 2007.
The conservative vision for criminal justice reform focuses on three key areas:
• Making our communities safer again;
• Using taxpayer dollars more wisely; and
• Recognizing that each human life has value and is entitled to basic dignity.
With these as our guide stars, conservatives have pursued criminal justice reforms at the state level for more than a decade, beginning in Texas in 2007. The principles refined in Texas have been applied in other Republican strongholds such as Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi and in more than thirty other states.1 Since 2010, jurisdictions that have implemented reforms like those first developed in Texas have reported savings or averted costs of $1.1 billion.(2)
Moreover, between 2008 and 2016, thirty-five states saw reductions in crime and imprisonment rates, twenty-one of which saw double digit declines.(3)
We point out the successes in the states because many of the same principles are included in the FIRST STEP Act and have been proven to cut crime while reducing spending.
Right on Crime has also been busy correcting the record on the misinformation campaign being waged by the naysayers of the reform initiative, using the successes seen in Texas. Senator Cotton, for example, is not a supporter as he has concerns about reforming the continued rise of recidivism. Like Sessions, Cotton is wary of increasing the likelihood that drug criminals will be back on the streets if sentencing reforms are approved.
It also bears noting that this skyrocketing death rate has also occurred under the current sentencing regime. We can and must punish kingpins and key traffickers who conspire to poison our communities. However, our current one-size-fits-all approach has not insulated us from this scourge and left us footing the bill for punishing low-level nobodies in criminal networks at no benefit to public safety. Street dealers are like the Lernaean Hydra: for every one we take off the street, two more take their place. Right on Crime, along with other criminal justice reform advocates, is working with the Trump Administration to ensure that our law enforcement has the resources to take down drug cartels and the kingpins who lead them while also implementing proven prevention and treatment strategies to reduce demand and overdoses.
This kind of reform isn’t easy and yet President Trump may be able to take advantage of a perfect opportunity to get it done in his first term. With prison overcrowding and drug deaths on the rise, the costs of criminal justice continue to skyrocket. There is no end in sight unless real changes are made, not just whittling around the edges. Think of the bragging rights Trump would have if this act is passed and he gets to have a signing ceremony touting the achievement. That alone may spur him on.