Criminal justice reform

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday the 16th of November, 2018. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up first today: sentencing reform.

The United States has not quite 5 percent of the world’s population but almost one-quarter of its prisoners.

That has made criminal justice reform a hot topic on Capitol Hill. In May, the House passed a reform bill. It did not, however, deal with sentencing reform.

REICHARD: But yesterday, President Trump announced his administration’s support for a new bipartisan Senate bill.

It will reform some mandatory minimum sentences.

And it will provide funding to prisoner rehabilitation programs.

TRUMP: These members have reached a bipartisan agreement. Did I hear the word bipartisan? [Applause]

REICHARD: Here with more on the legislation is WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: The First Step Act includes four provisions affecting federal sentencing guidelines from the 1990s.

First, it proposes shortening mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

It also gives judges wiggle room around those same mandatory minimums. Third, the proposal eliminates the regulation that makes it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime like possessing drugs.  

And lastly, the bill addresses the sentencing disparity between harsh mandatory minimums for crack cocaine possession and much more lenient minimums for powder cocaine. The proposal extends a retroactive reduction to the sentences of thousands of drug offenders already in prison.

Legal experts have long argued mandatory minimums have incarcerated African-Americans and other minorities at much higher rates than whites.

Prison Fellowship’s Craig DeRoche calls the bill a landmark.

DeROCHE: It’s probably the most significant change in a generation of positive reform of our criminal justice system, but it truly is just the first step.

FreedomWorks’ Jason Pye says prison reform advocates pushed the Senate to include sentencing reform that both Democrats and Republicans could get behind.

PYE: This bill was put together with a certain balance in mind. I think we struck the right balance.

Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Mike Lee, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner all worked together to strike that balance. Kushner has been the leading voice for reform within the White House.

Pye says the tricky part will be winning over law-and-order Republicans like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, as well as Democrats who say the bill may not go far enough.

PYE: We count right now an early count of what we have is probably 35 Republican votes for the bill. But, I have faith that a Senator Durbin will round up the Democratic votes necessary and then Senator Lee, Paul and Chairman Grassley and others will round up the votes to bring Republicans to the table to get the necessary votes.

But the Senate is up against a narrowing legislative window. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’ll bring the bill to the floor if it can get more than 60 votes. But he’s also focused on passing a spending bill and a farm bill before the December 7th recess begins.

Speaker Paul Ryan also pledged to bring the bill to the House floor where it likely will pass.

Outside Congress, the bill has drawn support from liberal and conservative groups. That includes the ACLU and conservative political donors Charles and David Koch. Last week, the largest law enforcement labor organization in the country, the Fraternal Order of Police, also endorsed the bill.

Steven Harris is the director of advocacy at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He says the need for criminal justice reform is something people from all vantage points can recognize.

HARRIS: Whether your thing is cost effectiveness or whether your issue is sentencing, whether your issue is how inmates are dealt with internally, uh, with regard to whether or not we’re dealing transformatively with inmates. However you’re looking at the issue, I think people have concluded that the system is broken.

Advocates hope the bill could come to the Senate floor the last week of November and move to the House soon after.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) President Donald Trump speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, to announce his support for the first major rewrite of the nation’s criminal justice sentencing laws in a generation. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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