First Step Act is victory marking compassion of President Trump

If you asked anyone in early November with insider knowledge whether the First Step Act, the now recently passed federal criminal justice reform bill, would get across the finish line, they would tell you “not without the endorsement of the president.” The prospects of a bill with the biggest changes to the federal criminal justice system in our generation were slim to none without an active role by the president himself. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE previously expressed tacit support for criminal justice reform, but he had not explicitly endorsed the latest iteration of the First Step Act, which included much needed changes to overly harsh sentencing laws.

Trump eventually made known where he stood. Surrounded by leaders from law enforcement, faith community, advocacy groups, individuals who have been through the prison system, and leaders of Congress from both parties, Trump put his full support behind the measure saying, “I’ll be waiting with a pen.” He did not stop there. A couple weeks went by, and it appeared that the clock may run out on the lame duck session before the First Step Act had a chance at passage. Some opponents in the Senate were doing their best to impede the priorities of the president and the Republican platform, which includes policies in the First Step Act.


However, Trump continued to push for reform in the public eye and behind the scenes, working with Senate Majority Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight MORE to allow this to the floor for a vote. Before Christmas, the active support shown by Trump for a much fairer, much smarter, more conservative, and more compassionate criminal justice system came to fruition as the First Step Act passed the House and Senate with stunning majorities.

Many believed Trump that would not endorse and actively pursue a bill like the First Step Act because he is a “law and order” president. Those who doubted his endorsement and large conservative support for the bill were not paying attention to what actually makes us safer and what states with Republican governors have shown actually works. Instead of falling for the fear mongering of some, Trump listened to experts from all walks of life to understand what is effective, not what just what sounds good.

Governors from states like Texas, Georgia, and Kentucky spoke to Trump about the successes they have had with their own criminal justice system. Experts in the field presented overwhelming evidence that expanding recidivism reducing programming ensures less folks will wind up back in prison. They explained that long sentences for low level offenders in lieu of treatment brought less safe streets to our communities. They showed the Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonObama: 'Hopeless' to try to sell as many books as Michelle Dow breaks 30,000 for first time as Biden transition ramps up Trump's remaking of the judicial system MORE crime bill of the 1990s turned the federal corrections system into yet another bloated and ineffective bureaucratic system.

The First Step Act had stark opposition from some Republicans. They claimed the bill was a “jailbreak” and that thousands of violent criminals would be roaming the streets. They attempted to preserve a failing system that unnecessarily imprisoned Americans for decades with no hope for a second chance. This is an outdated system that costs taxpayers billions each year, with half of those released from federal prison arrested again. Trump recognized this rhetoric as baseless, considered the evidence, and worked with McConnell, who deserves a great deal of credit for getting the legislation across the finish line. That is the leadership we voted for.

Trump and the Republicans have been unfairly painted as “heartless” by the mainstream media. Alice Johnson, a great grandmother who served more than 20 years in prison for a first time nonviolent drug offense, had her sentenced commuted by the president earlier this year. She was able to spend Christmas with her family outside of a prison after two decades because of Trump. Over the next few years, thousands more families will get to do the same. This is what making America great again looks like.

Jim DeMint is the chairman of the Conservative Partnership Institute. He served as senator and representative from South Carolina for 14 years.