Our suspicious side tells us President Donald Trump must be up to something. He's playing the public for fools. There's something hidden in the fine print. How could it possibly be that he is promoting a prison reform bill that even his most ardent critics also support?
On so many other social issues, Trump's knee-jerk reaction is to adopt the most odious response possible in hopes of sending his critics into a frenzy. Migrants coming toward the border? Deploy the military. Election too close to call in Florida? Accuse Democrats of fraud.
U.S. prison system overcrowded, racially imbalanced and too prone to recidivism? Express empathy for those behind bars and embrace a bipartisan reform bill that reduces sentencing requirements and provides more money to help reduce the number of future offenders.
That just doesn't sound like Trump, but he has expressed wholehearted support for the First Step Act, a prison-reform package negotiated by a bipartisan group of senators and modeled after legislation overwhelmingly passed by the House. In backing this bill, Trump finds himself in the company of billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and a wide array of House Democrats.
The cynics in us might conclude this is Trump's way of licking his wounds after his Nov. 6 election rebuke, and that his embrace of prison reform is a face-saving way to extend an olive branch to political centrists on Capitol Hill. But the realists in us have to conclude that this bill is simply too logical to oppose because it addresses some gaping, fundamental weaknesses in the nation's criminal justice system. Among the bill's highlights:
Federal judges would be allowed to bypass existing minimum-sentencing requirements and would no longer have to abide by the "three strikes" rule that imposes life sentences after a previously incarcerated felon commits a third crime.
Nonviolent drug offenders would no longer face overly harsh minimum-sentencing rules. Those convicted before Aug. 2, 2010, for crack cocaine offenses would qualify for reduced sentences that align with penalties imposed for powder cocaine. The harsher crack cocaine sentences skewed heavily toward penalizing black offenders. Pregnant women would no longer be subjected to shackling.
It places a stronger emphasis on incentives to reduce recidivism. Prison terms would be cut in proportion to each day a prisoner participates in an anti-recidivism program.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who favored an unyielding tough-on-crime approach, opposed this bill. Now that Sessions is gone, Trump suddenly appears more moderate on criminal justice. Even with the president's support, it'll be a tough slog to get it approved this year.
Regardless of when passage happens, our hope is that Trump will see a radical change toward greater cooperation on Capitol Hill if he learns to moderate his tone and stop deliberately antagonizing those who choose moderation over extremism.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH