How Trump Went From 'Tough On Crime' To 'Second Chance' For Felons
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today the Senate considers a bill to reduce federal sentences for some drug offenses. It is also meant to prepare inmates for life after prison. Supporters say this bill would not have made it this far without a surprising supporter - President Trump. Here's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: When President Trump talks about crime, it can sound a lot like a throwback to the past...
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My administration is determined - totally determined to restore law and order.
Law and order.
One hundred percent...
RASCOE: ...To those decades when the war on drugs and high crime rates led to stiff punishments for drug offenses.
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TRUMP: We need law and order in our country.
RASCOE: And it's not just talk. Trump's first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, directed prosecutors to seek tougher penalties for some nonviolent drug offenses. So how did Trump end up pushing a bill that would reverse some of those tough-on-crime laws? One factor - his son-in-law.
DAVID SAFAVIAN: This bill would've been dead on arrival without Jared Kushner.
RASCOE: David Safavian works for the American Conservative Union Foundation, which supports this new Senate legislation. His group found an ally in Kushner who's a top White House adviser. Groups like Safavian's and their progressive counterparts argue that unreasonably long sentences have clogged up U.S. prisons, costing taxpayer dollars without lowering crime rates. Kushner, whose father served time in federal prison, has led the charge in the White House to make changes to the nation's criminal justice system.
SAFAVIAN: He's been able to make the case to the president as to why this is good for neighborhoods, good for the economy, good for individuals and good for families.
RASCOE: At White House roundtable meetings, advocates like Shon Hopwood told Trump that there were better ways to crack down on crime. Hopwood met with Trump earlier this year.
SHON HOPWOOD: Well, what I told the president was - I said, you know, I committed a violent crime, but I am not a violent criminal and that people can change and the law should recognize that.
RASCOE: Hopwood is now a law professor at Georgetown University, but he spent nearly 11 years in prison for bank robbery. He says he thinks hearing stories like his made Trump look at prisoners differently. The push to persuade Trump seems to have paid off. After supporting a more limited bill in the House, last month Trump came out in favor of the more expansive Senate bill. It would promote prison rehabilitation programs and end automatic life sentences under the three-strike penalty for certain felonies.
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TRUMP: We all benefit when those who have served their time can find a job, support their families and stay the hell out of jail, right? That's what we want. Stay out of jail.
RASCOE: Without his endorsement, the bill likely wouldn't have come up for a vote. Safavian says unlike other politicians, Trump doesn't have to worry about opponents painting him as weak on crime.
SAFAVIAN: You know, Donald Trump is tough on crime. Donald Trump endorses this bill. Therefore, this bill is not soft on crime.
RASCOE: Still, some Republican critics argue it will free violent criminals, and some on the left argue it doesn't go far enough. Breon Wells, a political strategist who has worked on these issues, says he's worried that Trump's mixed messages on crime may lead the Justice Department to not fully implement the law.
BREON WELLS: Do we have good faith, long-term committed partners in this so that this first step doesn't become something where everyone pats themselves on the back and then we don't revisit this for another five, 10 or even 20 years?
RASCOE: If the bill does pass, the 180,000 inmates in federal prison will soon learn what Trump's new version of law and order means for them. Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News, Washington.
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