Trump signs sweeping criminal justice First Step Act into law!

Prison and sentencing reform bill will give judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders.

US President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act in the Oval Office on Friday [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]
US President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act in the Oval Office on Friday

US President Donald Trump has signed rare bipartisan legislation addressing concerns with the criminal justice system.

Trump called the bill “an incredible success for our country” and “beyond bipartisan” during an Oval Office signing ceremony on Friday.

Congresspersons and advocates also hailed it as a hugely influential package and thanked the president for supporting the issue.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the law would give thousands of people in prison a “second chance”.

ACLU

@ACLU

We applaud the bipartisan group of lawmakers for listening to advocates.

This law will give thousands of currently incarcerated people a second chance and help undo some of the many harms caused by our broken criminal justice system.

ChuckGrassley

@ChuckGrassley

@ signing ceremony of the First step act AKA criminal justice reform Pres Trump used THIS SINGLE PEN to sign 1st criminal justice reform bill in a generation bringing fairness to sentencing and for ppl released fr prison to hv a productive and crime free rest of their life

The legislation will give judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and will boost prisoner rehabilitation efforts.

It received the rare support of both Democratic and Republican members of Congress, as well as conservative and liberal groups that rarely work together.

Groups that supported the bill included the Fraternal Order of Police, the Centre for American Progress and the Koch brothers, among others.

Playing a key role behind the scenes was Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, whose father spent time in federal prison when he was younger. At the signing ceremony, Trump personally thanked Kushner.

More than 2 million people in prison

The US leads the world in the known prison population, with about 2.2 million people jailed at the end of 2016.

During Senate debate of the bill, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin noted the US had five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s known prison population.

Parts of US gov’t shut down after politicians fail to reach deal

He added that minority groups bore the brunt of tough minimum sentences that judges have been directed to impose as a result of a decades-old law that has exploded the numbers of jailed people.

“The majority of illegal drug users and dealers in America are white. But three-quarters of the people serving time in prison for drug offences are African American or Latino,” Durbin said.

In response to criticism from some conservatives that the legislation could prompt the release of violent criminals into society, the bipartisan measure was reworked to scale back the discretion judges would have in some sentencing cases.

The passage of the bill is seen as a major victory for advocates who have worked for years on similar pieces of reform legislation but were continually blocked by conservatives amid scepticism within the Republican leadership.

US Senate passes sweeping criminal justice reform bill!

Prisoners in an overcrowded California correctional facilityPrisoners in an overcrowded California correctional facility

The US Senate has passed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill seeking to address concerns that the US locks up too many of its citizens.

The First Step Act, which has been championed by US President Donald Trump, passed by a vote of 87-12.

The bipartisan measure found unlikely support from hardline conservatives and progressive liberals alike.

The US leads the world in number of jailed citizens. Around 2.2m Americans were in jail in 2016, figures show.

The bill, which is expected to be debated in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, would only affect federal prisoners accounting for about 10% of the total US prison population.

Moments after the vote passed, President Trump tweeted: “America is the greatest Country in the world and my job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes.”

What does the law actually do?

The bill would overhaul the US justice system by giving more discretion to judges during sentencing, and by strengthening prisoner rehabilitation efforts.

Among the sentencing guidelines being revised is one reducing the “three strikes” penalty for drug felons from life in prison to 25 years.

The “three strikes” policy – introduced during the Clinton presidency – mandated strict penalties for those convicted of three serious crimes.

How police line-ups jail the innocent

The First Step Act also limits the disparity in sentencing guidelines between powder and crack cocaine, which could affect up to 2,600 prisoners, according to the Marshall Project.

It allows for more criminals to serve their sentences in halfway houses or under home confinement, and requires offenders to be jailed within 500 miles (800km) of their families.

The exterior of a prison in IllinoisThe exterior of a prison in Illinois

It bans shackling pregnant prisoners and mandates that tampons and sanitary napkins be available to women.

It reduces the mandatory minimum sentences for serious drug crimes, and authorises $375m (£297m) in federal spending for job training and educational programmes for prisoners.

New Jersey Democratic Cory Booker hailed the legislation as “one small step [that] will affect thousands and thousands of lives”.

How did it get this far?

All 49 Democrats in the Senate voted in favour of the bill, with several mentioning that prisons are disproportionally filled with minority groups.

Twelve conservative law-and-order Republican senators voted against the bill.

Many of the supporters of the First Step Act had also rallied behind the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which was supported by former President Barack Obama.

That bill looked set for passage before Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell blocked it, and refused to put it to a vote in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Earlier this year, White House adviser Jared Kushner began working with Republicans to draft a bill that Mr Trump could sign into law.

With Mr Trump’s endorsement, the Republican group was able to shore up enough support to bring the bill to a vote.

“This is the biggest thing,” said Republican Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley after the vote was held.

Presentational grey line

So Congress actually did something?

Analysis box by Anthony Zurcher

The first two years of the Donald Trump presidency have been defined in part by high-profile partisan battles in Congress – over healthcare, immigration, tax reform and presidential nominees. Beneath the surface, however, there’s been a somewhat surprising undercurrent of bipartisan co-operation.

Democrats and Republicans have come together to pass legislation to address the opioid addiction crisis, modernise the Federal Aviation Administration, provide additional resources for veterans and fund vast swaths of the federal government using traditional appropriations processes.

In the last few weeks alone, Congress enacted – and the president signed – a law to provide research and treatment for sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorderthat predominantly affects African-Americans. It unanimously passed a $60m bill to prevent maternal mortality.

This criminal justice reform bill could represent the highest-profile accomplishment yet.

With Democrats in control of the House of Representatives next year, Congress and the president will have no choice but to seek bipartisan solutions if they want to enact any significant legislation. That may be a challenge, given that even as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders heralded the reform bill as a “historic win”, she couldn’t resist taking a shot across the political aisle.

“Imagine how much more we can accomplish in the years ahead if – like on criminal justice – Democrats spend more time working with GOP to build America up and less time tearing the President down,” she tweeted.

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