Trump's support of a major sentencing reform bill sparks rare moment of bipartisan hope — but advocates warn the bill has a long way to go

  • President Donald Trump celebrated a rare moment of bipartisan unity on Wednesday when he announced his support for the First Step Act, a major sentencing reform bill.
  • Trump’s backing prompted a wave of relief for the bill’s conservative backers, following a painstaking process to win over everyone from sceptical Republican lawmakers, to liberal activist groups, to wary law-enforcement agencies.
  • Conservative advocates of the bill say they’re confident it will succeed if it’s given a chance in the Senate – though they cautioned that even the smallest modifications to the bill pose the risk of alienating either Republicans or Democrats in their shaky alliance.

President Donald Trump’s embrace this week of a major sentencing reform bill sparked a rare bipartisan moment of unity this week – though advocates warn the bill has a long way to go.

Across the country, Republican lawmakers have for years watched the success of criminal justice reform efforts in states like Texas, Georgia, and Kentucky in reducing prison populations and lowering costs to taxpayers – without triggering a corresponding uptick in crime rates.

The party that once gloated over harsh sentencing laws and “tough on crime” rhetoric has become much more divided on the issue, as the nation’s prison population has ballooned to a whopping 2.3 million incarcerated people, with a price tag totally in tens of billions of annual taxpayer dollars.

“We’re all better off when former inmates can receive and reenter society as law-abiding, productive citizens,” Trump said in his remarks from the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Wednesday. “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.”

Trump’s public support of the First Step Act So prompted a wave of relief for conservative backers of the bill, following a painstaking process to win over the support of a variety of stakeholders – from sceptical Republican lawmakers, to liberal activist groups, and wary law-enforcement agencies.

The bill overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives by 360-59 votes earlier this year, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has reluctantly agreed to bring it to the floor for a vote if the lawmakers can whip at least 60 votes.

The movement scored a late win last week, when the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the nation’s largest police union, announced that the bill had won over its members’ support following the latest round of revisions.

“We are proud to stand with President Trump on this issue. Because of our engagement, the new and revised ‘First Step Act’ ensures that truly dangerous offenders, like those who commit crimes while armed and those who traffic in deadly narcotics like fentanyl, are ineligible for any early release programs,” FOP’s president Chuck Canterbury said in a statement.

‘Obnoxious and loud voices’

But other law-enforcement associations have refrained from supporting the bill, arguing that the revisions don’t go far enough in ensuring that people convicted of dealing drugs like fentanyl and heroin aren’t released from prison early.

“A raging heroin and opioid abuse epidemic shows no signs of lessening,” Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, said in an open letter earlier this year. “This is both a safety concern for the officers themselves, and for the community at large. This is a huge cost on local law enforcement.”

The revised bill was crafted by a wide array of bipartisan senators – including Republicans Chuck Grassley and Mike Lee, and Dick Durbin, a Democrat. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has spearheaded the White House’s push for criminal-justice reform, was also a key player.

Conservative advocates of the bill say they’re confident it will succeed if it’s given a chance in the Senate – though they cautioned that even the smallest modifications to the bill pose the risk of alienating either Republicans who fear a wave of recidivism, or Democrats who could argue the reforms don’t go far enough.

“This has been a very carefully constructed bill,” Jason Pye, legislative director of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, told INSIDER. “We have a lot of work cut out for us. This is not done. This is not over.”

He added, however, that some Republican lawmakers may be a lost cause. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, for instance, has vehemently opposed the reforms, even referring to it as a “jailbreak” bill.

“Sen. Cotton has said we’ve had an under-incarceration problem. He wants more people locked up. That’s not someone you can win over,” Pye said. “When there’s a whip count it’s going to show that there’s broad Republican support, and that the people in the conference who don’t want to do this are just very obnoxious and loud voices. But they’re a small minority.”

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