Trump Says He’s Working to Pass FIRST STEP Act

Backs controversial bill in meeting

Donald Trump
Getty Images
August 2, 2018

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that his administration is working to pass a major prison reform bill, in spite of the criticism it has attracted from his own Department of Justice.

Speaking to a meeting with inner city pastors at the White House, Trump emphasized the work that his administration has done to create jobs, including recently released inmates. He tied this expanded opportunity for prisoners to passage of the FIRST STEP Act, a prison reform proposal wending its way through Congress.

"We passed the First Step Act through the House, and we're working with the Senate to pass that into law. And I think we'll be able to do it," Trump said.

"When we say 'hire American,' we mean all Americans—every American, everybody," he added.

Prison reform—restructuring the experience of incarcerees in prison and reforming reentry protocols—has been on Trump's radar since at least the State of the Union, when he mentioned it among his policy priorities for 2018. The focus is likely the work of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has pushed for prison reform from his perch in the White House.

This is not the first time that Trump has said he would sign the bill, as he called for Congress to "get a bill to [his] desk" back in May. But his latest comments make clear that the president sees FIRST STEP Act as part of his administration's agenda, a stance that puts him at odd with DOJ and with congressional leadership in the Senate.

FIRST STEP, a bipartisan proposal that originated with Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D., N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R., Ga.), would overhaul the system of "good time" credits by which prisoners can earn early release through rehabilitative activities.

It's also earned the support of numerous prison reform groups, including conservative ones like the Koch-backed Freedom Partners. Freedom Partners is responsible for a recent poll that found 70 percent of likely voters support the bill.

Indeed, the proposal has many supporters in the House of Representatives: it passed there in May, by a vote of 360 to 59.

But the bill is now stalled in the Senate, where it could likely command a majority between Democrats and pro-reform Republicans like Sens. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) and Mike Lee (R., Utah). However, just like past efforts at sentencing reform, the bill is opposed by Senate leadership, who are unlikely to bring it to the floor for a vote.

A group of conservative senators are thought to be unlikely to back the bill, and law enforcement officials from Assistant U.S. Attorneys to the National Sheriffs Association have come out against it.

As the Free Beacon reported previously, Trump's own Department of Justice is among the bill's opponents: Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a vocal opponent of sentencing reform while in the Senate, and is perceived as a counterweight to Kushner in the White House on this issue. A letter from the Department to the White House last month outlined its concerns, including the failure to include drug-trafficking offenders in exemption from access to good time credits and the potential unintended consequences of the bill for the incarceration of illegal immigrants.

However, these criticisms do not appear to have swayed Trump, who as of Wednesday was still focused on the booming economy and how his prison reform could contribute to it.

"Prisoners have never, ever, even close, done better than they’ve done now when they get out, because they're getting jobs. And the reason is, it's hard to get people because we’re pretty well filled up. So for the first time probably, I think I could say, ever, they're getting a break," Trump said.