Trump Signals Openness to Sentencing Reform After Meeting With Black Pastors

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks with a group of black Christian leaders at the White House on Aug. 1, 2018. He is seated next to megachurch pastor John Gray (L) and Alveda King (R). |

President Donald Trump said he is open to bipartisan sentencing reform provisions that will likely be added to a White House-backed prison reform bill after meeting with black pastors last week.

Last Wednesday, Trump met with a group of about 20 black pastors in the White House to discuss the importance of reforming the United States' federal prison system and passing the Trump-backed FIRST STEP Act, which passed the House in May.

Later that same day, Trump met with four Republican senators who laid out a compromise to the FIRST STEP Act that would add four provisions to reform America's flawed mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Although the Trump White House has previously hinted that the president would not sign a bill that includes sentencing reform measures, a White House official told The Hill following Wednesday's meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and three other senators that Trump is "positively inclined" toward the compromise proposal.

The White House source added that the president instructed the Republican senators to "do some work with your colleagues" and "let's see where the Senate is and then come back to me with it."

The compromise proposal comes after the FIRST STEP Act overwhelmingly passed the House with the support of over 134 Democrats. Congress members on both sides of the aisle got behind the fact that the bill would institute much-needed rehabilitation programs to help reduce recidivism in federal prisons.

However, the bill has stalled in the Senate. Critics of the bill feel it should include sentencing reform measures because there are thousands of non-violent drug offenders who are languishing in U.S. prisons due to disproportionate sentencing policies.

The comments reported by The Hill signal a shift in the president's thinking when it comes to sentencing reform measures.

Heather Rice-Minus, the vice president of government affairs for the evangelical advocacy organization Prison Fellowship, told The Christian Post Tuesday that she believes Trump's relationship with the faith community and his meetings with pastors has definitely influenced his thinking on the issue.

"Having him hear from those pastors and know that he would have the ability to impact some of their communities I am sure was in the front of his mind going into the meeting with Sen. Grassley and others who wanted to see a broader approach to justice reform," Rice-Minus explained.

Among the provisions discussed at last Wednesday's meeting with the senators is one that would reduce the length of mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted for a second and third time for certain drug-related crimes.

The mandatory sentence for a third conviction would be lowered from life to 25 years in prison. Meanwhile, the sentence for a second conviction would be lowered from 25 to 15 years.

The second provision discussed in the compromise would bar the doubling up of mandatory sentences for criminals convicted on gun and drug offenses. A third provision would give judges more discretion to give criminals less than the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.

The fourth provision would make a 2010 law that equalized sentencing guidelines for crack and cocaine offenses retroactive for convictions prior to 2010. 

Moving forward, amendments are expected to be added to the FIRST STEP Act to reflect the compromise provisions. If the bill is voted and passed by the Senate, it would have to go back to the House for another vote on the amended bill.

Although proponents of the FIRST STEP Act were initially skeptical about the ability for a bill with sentencing reform provisions to pass in the Republican-led Senate, Rice-Minus thinks that the president's "unlikely voice" on the issue "may move some folks who may be on the fence."

"I think it may also be helpful in that some of those who are more in opposition [to sentencing reform] think twice about whether or not they speak up on this knowing that Trump, who they support on other issues, is in favor of it," she said, noting the broad coalition of support for the bill.

"The key for us right now is speaking with Senate offices about where they stand on those [provisions] and getting a good read on how much support votes we have if the bill comes to the floor."

Along with Grassley, the meeting with Trump was attended by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

The four provisions discussed in the compromise were pulled from Grassley's Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

"In 2015, there was a New York Times editorial where they called Sen. Grassley the 'roadblock to sentencing reform.' He really turned the tide and has now become its biggest champion to the point where he has actually blocked some other bills from going forward in order to make sure that sentencing reform is included," Rice-Minus explained. "I am incredibly impressed with his ability to move the needle and get the president's support on this. I think if it were not for Sen. Grassley, we certainly would not be where we are right now."

Rice-Minus also praised the role that Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has played in pushing this issue in the White House. She also praised the work of the faith community, which she says, has long been advocating for both prison and sentencing reform.

"Now to see the president signal support for sentencing reform just shows how far we have come and how much we have shifted," she said. "That is in large part thanks to the faith community and really honing in on the biblical values that demand a different approach to crime and incarceration."

Earlier this year, Trump commuted the life sentence of 63-year-old Alice Johnson who was sentenced in 1996 of conspiracy to sell cocaine. As Johnson is just one of many who have been subject to the nation's stingent sentencing laws, her case was brought to Trump's attention by reality star Kim Kardashian. 

"When their stories are lifted up, it can be incredibly powerful," Rice-Minus assured.  

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