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Congress May Be On The Verge Of A Major Overhaul To The Criminal Justice System

21 hours ago
Originally published on November 15, 2018 12:01 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Congress may be on the verge of a major overhaul of the criminal justice system, and it seems to go against President Trump's tough talk on crime. A bipartisan group of lawmakers is hoping to push the bill across the finish line as they return for the upcoming lame-duck session. The president weighed in on that idea this afternoon.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Americans from across the political spectrum can unite around prison reform legislation that will reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption.

CHANG: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following this issue for years and years. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So this bill - it doesn't exactly seem to jell with President Trump's past rhetoric about upholding law and order. Just explain this to me. How does being more lenient on some drug sentences fit in with his whole tough-on-crime talk?

JOHNSON: Inside the White House, the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner has made sentencing and prison reform a top priority. He has a personal connection because his father served prison time.

CHANG: Right.

JOHNSON: Jared Kushner's arranged roundtables for President Trump to get him used to the idea. Now, the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was a staunch opponent of leniency for drug criminals. But, remember; Jeff Sessions was forced out last week...

CHANG: Yup.

JOHNSON: ...At Justice. And his replacement, acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, doesn't seem to have trouble with this proposal. Over the weekend, though, another important voice chimed in - the Fraternal Order of Police. They're the biggest law enforcement union. The FOP endorsed Donald Trump during the campaign, and they have a lot of clout.

CHANG: OK. So that opened the door even wider. I mean, there's been so much back-and-forth between lawmakers on this bill. Can you just catch us up for a moment? What exactly is inside this legislation now?

JOHNSON: There's a lot of language about making education and job training available to nonviolent prisoners and giving them a chance to earn credits to get out sooner. That idea was not controversial.

But this deal also includes some changes to criminal penalties. Here's what we know so far. It'll help inmates who were punished under an old law that gave them harsher sentences for crack cocaine rather than powder cocaine.

CHANG: OK.

JOHNSON: That law hit the African-American community very hard, disproportionately. Those people will be allowed to go back and ask judges to let them out of prison.

And moving forward, for new defendants, this plan would also reduce some mandatory minimum sentences and give more power to judges to use their discretion.

CHANG: So what's been the reaction to this bill so far?

JOHNSON: I reached out to Holly Harris. She's executive director of the Justice Action Network, which lobbies for changes to the justice system. Here's what she had to say.

HOLLY HARRIS: We're very hopeful that this bill will also lead to second chances for so many individuals who need treatment, who really want to get job training, who want to return to society, support their families, find good jobs, improve their education, secure adequate housing.

JOHNSON: Now, Holly Harris says she knows a lot of people got discouraged when nothing happened in Congress during the Obama years. But she says Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican, and Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, really held together and helped push this plan.

The groups - the group named Families Against Mandatory Minimums also supports the proposal. They point out more than 9 in 10 people in federal prison eventually return to the community, so it just makes sense...

CHANG: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...To provide more options for them in prison.

Importantly, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has been lukewarm about this idea for a long time. Earlier today, he said the Senate has a lot to do this year - appropriations and the farm bill. But this show of support today from President Trump may help move justice reform higher up on the list of the things that the Senate will do before they break.

CHANG: I guess we'll just have to wait and see. NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.