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Relief for prisoners

Politics | A bipartisan criminal justice reform bill has the support of the president, but will it make it to his desk anytime soon?
by Harvest Prude
Posted 11/15/18, 06:23 pm

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump said Wednesday he would support a bipartisan deal on criminal justice reform that could become the first large-scale prison law overhaul in recent years.

Senators from both parties agreed to a proposal this week that builds on legislation the House passed in May. That bill, called the First Step Act, focused on back-end reforms such as improving prison conditions and assisting inmates reentering society. The Senate version adds front-end reforms that ease mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. It also cuts the “three-strikes” penalty to 25 years in prison instead of a life sentence for nonviolent drug offenses and reduces the “stacking” sentencing policy that makes it a federal crime to have a firearm while committing another crime. It retroactively applies a 2010 law reducing harsher penalties for crack cocaine convictions than for powder cocaine. And the bill introduces more measures aimed at reducing recidivism while seeking to improve conditions for female inmates.

At a White House event, the president said the tentative legislation would “make our communities safer and give former inmates a second chance at life after they have served their time.”

In recent years, Congress has only made modest advances on criminal justice reform. In 2007, it gave grants to programs focused on reintegrating inmates into society. In 2010 legislators passed a bill lowering sentences for possession of crack cocaine. Meanwhile, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2.3 million people imprisoned, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. African-Americans and Hispanics are overrepresented in U.S. prisons compared to the overall population, according to Pew Research Center.

The bill faces a few obstacles before it reaches the president’s desk. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday he couldn’t guarantee a vote on the measure in the lame-duck session, and he wanted to see how broad support was before bringing it to the Senate floor. The bill is competing with other unfinished business, including funding the government and the farm bill, which leadership wants to wrap up before the new Congress takes over in January.

Some GOP lawmakers, primarily Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, remain stalwartly opposed to the initiative. And some Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, want to hold out until they have more leverage in the new Congress to try and get more expansive reforms.

The bill has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, which is the largest U.S. law enforcement labor organization, and a range of liberal and conservative groups, from the Heritage Foundation to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Now that the measure has Trump’s endorsement, sponsors Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durban (D-Ill.) are more likely to push for its introduction as soon as possible.

Steven Harris, a policy director at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he hopes Congress will move this bill now instead of theorizing about what could be done in a future legislative session.

“This legislation recognizes that the majority of people who are incarcerated will one day be released,” Harris said. “So we need to be making sure that … these individuals are actually able to return to communities and be productive members of society.” —Harvest Prude

Associated Press (file) Associated Press (file) Elvis Presley in 1972

Trump honors

President Donald Trump announced last weekend he will present the nation’s highest civilian honor Friday to seven Americans, including a king and a sultan.

The president will award the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to singer Elvis Presley (known as the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll”), baseball’s George Herman “Babe” Ruth (aka the “Sultan of Swat”), and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch originalist on the bench who died one year before Trump took office.

The other recipients are retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history (41 years); doctor and philanthropist Miriam Adelson, who is the wife of major GOP donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson; and former NFL stars Roger Staubach, a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, and Alan Page, another Hall of Famer who went from being a member of the Minnesota Vikings’ Purple People Eaters defensive line to serving more than two decades on the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The seven are the first to receive the honor since Trump took office. —Mickey McLean

Report: U.S. military ill-prepared to fight

The United States’ military readiness has “eroded to a dangerous decree,” according to a new assessment by the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission. The geopolitical risk for military conflict is high, the report states, and the U.S. military is not ready to fight a major adversary like China or Russia—and definitely not both at the same time. —Lynde Langdon

Sick days

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to work Tuesday after a brief absence due to injury. The 85-year-old fell the evening of Nov. 7 and fractured three ribs. She came back to the court after a brief hospital stay and convalescence at home but was not on the bench Tuesday morning when the court met for routine business. —L.L.


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Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @HarvestPrude.

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