A welcome surprise: Important criminal justice reforms under Trump

A welcome surprise: Important criminal justice reforms under Trump
© Getty Images

When President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE was elected, I thought criminal justice reform was probably dead at the federal level. Groups such as mine should focus on state reform, I thought, and federal reform would have to wait at least four years.

The Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTime to bring federal employees home for every holiday Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Tuberville incorrectly says Gore was president-elect in 2000 MORE era at the Department of Justice produced some major sentencing injustices, such as the cases of Matthew Charles of Nashville, Tennessee, and Frederick Turner of Woodbridge, Virginia. Moreover, the president has called for the death penalty for drug dealers, even though many people who sell drugs also are addicts.


Yet not everything has turned out badly. In fact, the federal prison population has continued to fall during Trump’s first two years in office. As for legislative action, there are many modest but important reforms that groups such as FAMM long have thought the federal system needs and now appear to be on the horizon.

Reforms, such as:

  • Finally reducing sentences for the nearly 3,000 federal prisoners, mostly black men, who received excessive prison terms for crack cocaine-related offenses. Congress repudiated the indefensible 100:1 crack-powder sentencing disparity in 2010, but never extended that reform to those sentenced before the law was enacted;
  • Eliminating mandatory life sentences for third-time drug offenders;
  • Expanding the drug safety valve so fewer low-level drug offenders get sentences designed for kingpins;
  • Preventing prosecutors from stacking lengthy sentence enhancements, intended for repeat offenders, in cases where an offender has not been convicted previously;
  • Reducing the number of elderly and dying prisoners who are serving unnecessary time in prison by making necessary improvements to the federal compassionate release program, such as giving individuals the ability to appeal denied petitions for compassionate release in federal court;
  • Expanding the amount of time incarcerated individuals can earn off their sentences for good behavior from 47 to 54 days per year;
  • Preventing the federal Bureau of Prisons from sending incarcerated individuals so far away from their families and loved ones; and
  • Investing hundreds of millions of dollars in rehabilitative programming, an investment likely to be recouped when fewer individuals return to prison.

In January 2017, I doubted that any of these reforms could have been signed into law. As of last week, it appears Congress and the president are close to securing bipartisan legislation that includes not one of these reforms, but all of them. Some of the reforms were included in the FIRST STEP Act, prison reform legislation passed by the U.S. House in May by an overwhelming vote of 360-59. The sentencing provisions are being negotiated by bipartisan congressional leaders and the White House.

Just last week, the Fraternal Order of the Police (FOP) endorsed this compromise FIRST STEP-plus-sentencing reform package. The FOP’s endorsement is the latest in a long line of law enforcement group endorsements for the bill. The organization’s support is notable because the FOP initially opposed the FIRST STEP Act. Its endorsement should silence the small but noisy “Chicken Little” crowd, which squawks “Soft on crime!” every time criminal justice reform begins to move.

The FIRST STEP-plus-sentencing compromise is not perfect. Many of us who support reform want Congress to act more boldly, for example, by repealing mandatory minimum sentencing laws entirely. We want all sentencing reforms to apply retroactively so that those serving excessive sentences today can benefit. Finally, we want higher-risk incarcerated individuals to have incentive to participate in recidivism-reducing programming.

Groups such as FAMM recognize that we have more work to do before Congress would pass these bolder reforms. We must show election-minded policymakers that the public supports broader reform, and that enacting such reform is not only the right thing to do, it also is politically popular.

For now, we cannot afford to let what’s perfect be the enemy of what’s good — and the FIRST STEP-plus-sentencing compromise is good. Its smart sentencing and prison reforms will keep more families together and make our communities stronger and safer. The Senate should approve the compromise as soon as possible.

Kevin Ring is the president of FAMM and editor of  “Scalia’s Court: A Legacy of Landmark Opinions and Dissents” (Regnery).