Senate Passes Bipartisan Criminal Justice Bill – The New York Times

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Senate Passes Bipartisan Criminal Justice Bill

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Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, left, and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who were central to the bill’s passage, after the vote on Tuesday.CreditCreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

By Nicholas Fandos

WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday the most substantial changes in a generation to the tough-on-crime prison and sentencing laws that ballooned the federal prison population and created a criminal justice system that many conservatives and liberals view as costly and unfair.

The First Step Act would expand job training and other programming aimed at reducing recidivism rates among federal prisoners. It also expands early-release programs and modifies sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, to more equitably punish drug offenders.

But the legislation falls short of benchmarks set by a more expansive overhaul proposed in Congress during Barack Obama’s presidency and of the kinds of changes sought by some liberal and conservative activists targeting mass incarceration.

House leaders have pledged to pass the measure this week, and President Trump, whose support resuscitated a yearslong overhaul effort last month, said he would sign the bill.

Even as both sides acknowledged concessions, Tuesday’s vote was an important first step for the unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives — including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, Koch brothers and the liberal Center for American Progress — who locked arms in recent years and pushed lawmakers to reconsider the way the federal government administers justice three decades after the war on crime peaked. In one of this Congress’s final acts, every Democrat and all but 12 Republicans voted in favor of the legislation — an outcome that looked highly unlikely this month amid skepticism from Republican leaders.

For Republicans preparing to relinquish total control of Washington next month, the bill’s passage offered one final victory on their own terms and handed Mr. Trump a bipartisan policy achievement that he can tout as he seeks re-election. Liberals saw reason to celebrate, as well, even as they called for more aggressive changes: In gaining the support of Mr. Trump and so many Senate Republicans, they believe they have shifted the terms of policy debates around criminal justice in a way that could set the stage for additional changes on the federal level and in the states.

“This bill in its entirety has been endorsed by the political spectrum of America,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who has led the push for changes along with two Republicans, Senators Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah. “I can’t remember any bill that has this kind of support, left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican.”

Mr. Trump quickly touted the vote on Twitter, saying that the changes would “keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it.”

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Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, somewhat unexpectedly cast his own vote in favor of the bill.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

Proponents of the bill overcame an aggressive campaign by some conservatives who tried to resurrect the once-resonant charge that reducing sentences would make the United States less safe. Two Republicans, Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, introduced amendments to limit which types of offenders would be eligible for early-release programs or to water down other changes. All were narrowly voted down on the Senate floor.

Many of the changes adopted by the Senate and embraced by Mr. Trump are modeled after successful initiatives at the state level intended to reduce the costs and improve the outcomes of the criminal justice system. Congress’s action would not directly affect state prisons, where the majority of the country’s offenders are incarcerated, but proponents believe they could spur more states to change their laws.

Once signed into law, thousands of inmates will be eligible for immediate sentencing reductions and expanded early-release programs. Going forward, the effect will grow as thousands of new offenders receive reduced sentences and enter a changed prison system.

“We’re not just talking about money. We’re talking about human potential,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, said Tuesday during debate on the Senate floor. “We’re investing in the men and women who want to turn their lives around once they’re released from prison, and we’re investing in so doing in stronger and more viable communities.”

Broadly speaking, the First Step Act makes heavy investments in a package of incentives and new programs intended to improve prison conditions and better prepare low-risk prisoners for re-entry into their communities.

By participating in the programs, eligible prisoners can earn time credits to reduce their sentence or enter “prerelease custody,” such as home confinement. In recent weeks, conservative senators and law enforcement groups successfully pushed to limit some violent offenders from eligibility, including fentanyl traffickers.

The legislation would also prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates and the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in almost all cases. The Bureau of Prisons would be required to place prisoners in facilities close to their homes, if possible.

In all, it includes four changes to federal sentencing laws. One would shorten mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses, including lowering the mandatory “three strikes” penalty from life in prison to 25 years. Another would provide judges greater liberty to use so-called safety valves to go around mandatory minimums in some cases. The bill would also clarify that the so-called stacking mechanism making it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense, should apply only to individuals who have previously been convicted.

Finally, the bill would allow offenders sentenced before a 2010 reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to petition for their cases to be re-evaluated. The provision could alter the sentences of several thousand drug offenders serving lengthy sentences for crack-cocaine offenses. That would help many African-American offenders who were disproportionately punished for crack dealing while white drug dealers got off easier for selling powder cocaine.

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Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, had introduced an amendment to the bill that was narrowly voted down.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

For the bill’s supporters, Tuesday’s vote was the culmination of a five-year campaign on Capitol Hill that only months ago appeared to be out of reach while Mr. Trump was in office.

Much of the same coalition that pushed the First Step Act had rallied around similar legislation, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. With Mr. Obama’s support, as well as that of Mr. Grassley and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, the more expansive bill had appeared destined for passage before Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and majority leader, stepped in and refused to give it a vote in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Mr. McConnell seemed intent on denying proponents another shot this year, but they secured a powerful ally early on in Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Over the course of the past year, Mr. Kushner worked with Mr. Grassley, Mr. Durbin and Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, to draft a compromise that the president could back. With Mr. Trump’s endorsement, the group brought a strong majority of Senate Republicans on board. By last week, under intense pressure from his own party and the White House, Mr. McConnell relented. And on Tuesday, facing his own re-election fight in 2020, he somewhat unexpectedly cast his own vote in favor of the bill.

“This is the biggest thing,” a jubilant Mr. Grassley said after the vote, showing off a vote card to reporters. “Except maybe getting a Supreme Court justice.”

He embraced another Democrat central to its passage, Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and one of only three African-American senators.

“This is a very moving night for me,” Mr. Booker said. “This is literally one of the reasons I came to the United States Senate, to get something like this done.”

For Democrats and Republicans who favored greater changes, Mr. Trump’s endorsement came at a cost: They had to scale back their proposed sentencing changes. The 2015 bill made all sentencing reductions retroactive to include those currently in prison, but the bill passed on Tuesday limits most of those changes to future offenders.

But by winning the support of a tough-talking, anticrime president who enjoys deep loyalty among Republican voters, the groups believe they have shifted the debate in a way that could set the stage for additional changes and elevate the criminal justice debate before the 2020 Democratic primaries.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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Federal judge restricts travel of ex-Trump official Michael Flynn after lashing him at hearing – CNBC

An already ticked off federal judge on Tuesday slapped Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, with restrictions on his travel as he awaits sentencing.

Judge Emmet Sullivan’s order came hours after he told Flynn “arguably you sold your country out” — and suggested the retired Army lieutenant general could face prison if a sentencing proceeded as scheduled on Tuesday afternoon.

Sullivan, noting that he had just learned that Flynn had not previously had his travel restricted, ordered the former Trump official to stay within 50 miles of Washington, D.C. from now on.

The judge also ordered Flynn to surrender his passport, adding, “To the extent the defendant wishes to travel outside that area, he is directed to file a motion seeking leave of Court.”

The judge further wrote that Flynn’s already planned international travel is approved, without revealing Flynn’s destination or destinations. The travel restriction order takes effect Jan. 4.

The travel and passport restrictions are standard for defendants in Washington federal court who have been released, as Flynn has, pending trial or sentencing without having to post bail.

”The Court has learned no pretrial travel restrictions were imposed in this case,” Sullivan wrote in his order.

No date has been set yet to resume the sentencing of Flynn, which was aborted abruptly on Tuesday. Flynn’s lawyers and prosecutors from the office of special counsel Robert Mueller had been set to argue he receive no jail time or very little time for his admitted crime of lying to FBI agents in early 2017.

But those plans fell apart when Sullivan blasted Flynn for his conduct and said he might well send him to jail for longer than either the defense or prosecution wanted. The judge excoriated Flynn for lying to the FBI about his conversations with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s then-ambassador to the US, between the 2016 presidential election and Trump’s inauguration

Sullivan also threw a lifeline to Flynn by offering him the option of postponing the sentencing until after he truly is done cooperating with Mueller’s ongoing probes. Flynn’s lawyers accepted that reprieve, noting that Flynn might help federal prosecutors in Virginia with a new case unsealed Monday.

In that case, two former Flynn associates are accused of conspiring with him and the government of Turkey to influence American politicians about the status of a Turkish cleric who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania.

Flynn, without registering as a foreign agent as required by law, had pushed for the extradition of that cleric, Fethullah Gulen, to Turkey, whose president has accused him of backing a botched coup.

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Senate overwhelmingly passes criminal justice overhaul – AOL

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate passed a sweeping criminal justice bill Tuesday that addresses concerns that the nation’s war on drugs had led to the imprisonment of too many Americans for non-violent crimes without adequately preparing them for their return to society.

Senate passage of the bill by a vote of 87-12 culminates years of negotiations and gives President Donald Trump a signature policy victory, with the outcome hailed by scores of conservative and liberal advocacy groups. The House is expected to pass the bill this week, sending it to the president’s desk for his signature.

The bill gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and boosts prisoner rehabilitation efforts. It also reduces the life sentence for some drug offenders with three convictions, or “three strikes,” to 25 years. Another provision would allow about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 the opportunity to petition for a reduced penalty.

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Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said the nation’s prisons are full of Americans who are struggling with mental illness and addiction, and who are overwhelmingly poor. He said the nation’s criminal justice system “feeds on certain communities and not on others,” and said the bill represents a step toward “healing” for those communities.

“Let’s make no mistake, this legislation, which is one small step, will affect thousands and thousands of lives,” Booker said.

The Senate turned back three amendments Tuesday from Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, who said the bill endangered public safety. Supporters voiced concerns that passing any of the amendments would have sunk the bill.

One amendment would have excluded more prisoners from participating in educational and training programs that allow them to earn credits. Those credits can then be used to gain an earlier release to a halfway house or home confinement to finish out their sentence. Another amendment would have required that victims be notified before a prisoner gets that earlier release. The third would have required the Federal Bureau of Prisons to track and report the re-arrest rate for each prisoner who gets early release.

“This would not solve all the problems of the bill, but it would at least ensure some of these most heinous criminals who prey on young children or the vulnerable are not released early from prison,” Cotton said in urging lawmakers to support the amendments.

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Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the bill already carves out some 60 different crimes that make prisoners ineligible for early release to a halfway house or home confinement. He said Cotton’s amendment was too expansive and would prevent at least 30,000 prisoners from participation.

Durbin said the Federal Bureau of Prisons also gives victims the opportunity to be notified upon a change in the prisoner’s status, but it’s a choice. He said about 10 percent of victims choose not to be notified because of the trauma involved in revisiting the crime. Meanwhile, the amendment from Cotton and Kennedy would make it a requirement.

“Supporting the Cotton amendment is basically saying to these crime victims, ‘We’re going to force this information on you whether it’s in the best interest of your family, whether you want it or not,'” Durbin said. “That is not respectful of crime victims.”

An array of liberal and conservative advocacy groups rallied in support of the bill. They say the changes would make the nation’s criminal justice system fairer, reduce overcrowding in federal prisons and save taxpayer dollars. The bill would affect only federal prisoners, who make up less than 10 percent of the country’s prison population.

Law enforcement groups were more split. It was backed by the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police but opposed by the National Sheriff’s Association. The union representing federal prison guards also joined in supporting the measure.

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Michael Flynn’s sentencing collapses amid a judge’s ‘disgust’ over former national security adviser’s conduct – USA TODAY


Kevin Johnson and Bart Jansen


USA TODAY

Published 6:31 PM EST Dec 18, 2018

WASHINGTON – It all appeared to be a done deal.

Russia special counsel Robert Mueller urged that Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, serve no prison time for his communication with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Flynn stepped to the lectern in federal court Tuesday to declare he was ready to accept responsibility for his crimes and proceed to sentencing.

Nobody in the packed courtroom – especially Flynn – expected the blistering rebuke unleashed by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who went as far as to question the patriotism of the retired three-star Army general, wheeling to face the courtroom’s American flag to suggest that Flynn’s conduct “undermined” all the banner stood for.

“Arguably, you sold your country out,” Sullivan said.

More: Judge delays sentencing for Michael Flynn, Trump’s ex-national security adviser

More: President Trump says ‘good luck’ to Michael Flynn on day of sentencing

At the end of the extraordinary hearing, Flynn’s attorneys acceded to Sullivan’s warning that they postpone sentencing at least until March. The move allows Flynn to formally complete his cooperation with Mueller’s team in the Russia investigation and at least one other inquiry in which two of Flynn’s former business associates were charged this week with illegal lobbying on behalf of the government of Turkey.

Rarely are cooperating witnesses sentenced before their assistance is completed, Sullivan told Flynn, expressing “disgust” over Flynn’s conduct.

Last week, attorneys raised the notion that Flynn might have been entrapped during an FBI interview Jan. 24, 2017, when the national security adviser falsely denied discussing newly imposed Russian sanctions with Kislyak.

Almost immediately after Tuesday’s hearing opened, Sullivan seized on the claims made by Flynn’s lawyers, who suggested that agents had not properly warned their client of the criminal consequences for lying to the FBI.

Sullivan asked whether Flynn asserted the claims in an effort to cast doubt on his guilty plea.

Defense attorney Robert Kelner disavowed any such attempt, asserting that “Gen. Flynn fully accepts responsibility.”

The tenor of the hearing – and the judge – suddenly turned against the decorated military officer and vocal Trump surrogate.

Asked whether he needed more time to consider the claims related to the FBI interview, Flynn told the judge, “I appreciate that. No. I would like to proceed, your honor.”

More: Flynn’s lawyers request no prison time, defend cooperation with Mueller team

More: Mueller: No ‘coercion’ in Flynn interview; urges court to reject attempt to downplay crime

The expectation that Tuesday’s hearing would allow Flynn and his family to finally turn the page on an exacting yearlong slog through the most high-profile criminal investigation in the country all but drained away as Sullivan recounted Flynn’s false statements as a ranking official in Trump’s White House.

“I’m going to be frank with you,” Sullivan said. “This is a very serious offense. It involves making false statements to the FBI on the premises of the White House – in the West Wing!”

The interview with FBI agents occurred in Flynn’s White House office, four days after he assumed his post as national security adviser.  

Though Sullivan referenced Flynn’s career military service and lack of a prior criminal record, he suggested that Flynn’s conduct marked a serious betrayal he could not ignore.

“I cannot hide my disgust or my disdain for the crimes you committed,” Sullivan said.

The judge drew a head-snapping response from the defense table when he asked prosecutors whether Flynn’s behavior amounted to “treason.”

Prosecutors said there was no basis for such a charge, and the judge walked back the reference, saying he did not mean to imply Flynn committed treason.

“Don’t read too much into my questions,” Sullivan told the courtroom gallery after returning from a short break.

The judge’s admonition could not erase the sting inflicted on the  combat veteran and career military officer.

“I cannot assure you that, if you proceed today, you will not be sentenced to a period of incarceration,” Sullivan told Flynn, suggesting that he seek a delay until his cooperation was complete so it could count in his favor.

After a short recess to confer, Kelner said Flynn would seek the postponement, asserting that his client “held nothing back” from prosecutors.

Kelner said Flynn would probably be called to testify at any trials of two former business associates accused of illegal lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government.

The charges were unveiled Monday, and prosecutors acknowledged that Flynn could have faced charges in that case had he not agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s team. 

As part of his plea, Flynn admitted lying about his Turkish lobbying efforts. He belatedly registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for Turkey.

“I’m not promising anything,” Sullivan told Kelner about sentencing. “The court was just being upfront with you.”

Sullivan set a status conference in the case for March, but before adjourning the session, he offered one last parting shot:

“Happy holidays,” he said.

Flynn, accompanied by his wife, left the courthouse, rushing through a gantlet of protesters and supporters to a waiting car without comment.

“Lock him up!” some called out, echoing Flynn’s similar refrain at the podium of the 2016 Republican Convention, when he referred to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and the email investigation that shadowed her campaign. 

Other placard-waving demonstrators shouted encouragement to Flynn, chanting, “USA! USA!”  

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The bill that wouldn’t die: The unlikely story behind the criminal justice overhaul – CNN

Across the room, an unlikely group of allies tried to persuade him to join them. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner — the driving force behind the effort — had invited the liberal commentator and former Obama administration official Van Jones and celebrity Kim Kardashian West to the White House for an impromptu meeting.
But first they had to deal with one problem that had been bothering the President for weeks: Willie Horton.
Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman after he was granted a weekend furlough from prison in Massachusetts, was the subject of a withering 1988 presidential campaign ad attacking the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor at the time. The ad, which exploited racist stereotypes, was devastating to Dukakis, and Trump was worried that he could suffer his own Willie Horton moment in 2020 if he backed the bill — a fear stoked by Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and chief congressional opponent of the effort.
Jared Kushner cites 'personal experience' that led to focus on prison reformJared Kushner cites 'personal experience' that led to focus on prison reform
“He was afraid,” Jones said of the President. “He was concerned someone would get out, hurt someone and that would be the end of his political career.”
Jones, a CNN host and commentator, and Kardashian West sought to imprint the name of another convicted felon in Trump’s mind: Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman who had been serving a life sentence for money laundering and a nonviolent drug offense until Trump granted her clemency in June to broad acclaim. Every time Trump mentioned Horton, Jones and Kardashian West reminded him of Johnson.
“We just kind of circled back, Van and I, in talking to the President to explain: But you have Alice now, and Alice is your legacy,” Kardashian West, who had helped convince Trump last spring to commute Johnson’s sentence, told CNN. “She really opened up his heart and his eyes.”
The half-hour meeting was just one of several pivotal moments that ultimately led Trump to endorse a groundbreaking prison and sentencing overhaul bill last month, ramping up pressure on a reluctant Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who has doomed similar efforts in the past — to bring it to the floor for a vote.
On Tuesday night, Congress passed the bill 87 to 12. Trump is expected to sign it this week before leaving for his Mar-a-Lago resort. The effort cements what is so far the biggest bipartisan victory of his presidency and turns the page on decades of policies that critics say were brutal, racist, ineffective and costly.
The timing is particularly noteworthy given that it comes as nearly every aspect of the President’s political and business life is under investigation, and substantive congressional policy making has practically ground to a halt.
The bill’s passage is also a win for Kushner, whom the bill’s supporters credit with working behind the scenes to steer the legislation past significant opposition within the Trump administration and past shifting coalitions on Capitol Hill.
This story, based on interviews with more than a dozen administration officials, members of Congress, and advocates and opponents of the legislation, tracks the winding journey to push the bill, known as the First Step Act, through Congress to the desk of a President who campaigned on the promise of renewing tough-on-crime policies.
At times the bill seemed poised to fail. Yet at crucial moments a surprising political alliance emerged to keep it alive, one made up of social progressives, black Democrats, members of the religious right, fiscal conservatives and libertarians. The effort has proved so resilient this time around, opponents have dubbed the First Step Act the “zombie bill” for its refusal to die.
Under the legislation, thousands of federal inmates will be able to leave prison earlier than they otherwise would have. Many could secure an earlier release thanks to new credits awarded for good behavior or through participation in rehabilitation programs. The bill also eases some mandatory minimum sentences, gives judges more leeway to eschew certain sentencing guidelines and eliminates “stacking” provisions that leave offenders serving consecutive sentences for crimes committed with firearms.
“If this bill is the only step Congress takes, it will leave the important work of criminal justice reform substantially undone,” said Ames C. Grawert, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “But as a real ‘first step,’ the bill both changes the conversation — focusing on how we reduce federal prison sentences, not whether we do it at all — and offers a real, immediate benefit for currently incarcerated people.”

A Democratic blockade

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries didn’t want to be seen at the White House.
The New York Democrat represents parts of Brooklyn, one of the most anti-Trump districts in the country, and he was wary about the message his presence at the White House would send. So in the spring, when Kushner asked Jeffries to meet him at his office in the West Wing, he and Rep. Cedric Richmond, the Louisiana Democrat who’s the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, refused. Instead, on March 22, Kushner came to them on Capitol Hill for breakfast. Jeffries, who had been working with Richmond on overhauling the criminal justice system for years, saw it as an early sign that Kushner was serious about the issue.
Still, there was deep skepticism among Democrats. Many were averse to delivering Trump a win, and felt that simply being on the same side of an issue as the President was politically dangerous, particularly given his heated rhetoric over policing and inner city crime.
Meek Mill on prison reform: 'We are trapped inside of a system'Meek Mill on prison reform: 'We are trapped inside of a system'
In 2016, Trump repeatedly spoke about bringing back controversial police practices, like stop and frisk, that disproportionately impact black and Latino men. When Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, said he would boycott Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Trump tweeted in response that the civil rights icon “should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.”
But over months of meetings and calls with Kushner, Jeffries warmed to the idea that a criminal justice overhaul might be feasible under Trump. He found Kushner to be “authentically committed” and spent time talking with the President’s son-in-law about the personal connection he had to the issue.
Kushner’s father, Charles, served 14 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges of tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions. Jeffries also found a willing cosponsor across the aisle in Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, a pastor who had seen his state’s criminal justice overhaul efforts work to reduce recidivism rates.
Yet a difficult path lay ahead. First, Jeffries had to deal with critics in his own party.
On May 17, the Collins-Jeffries bill drew a fiery rebuke from some of the most prominent members of the Democratic Party, including Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey. The trio wrote a letter laying out the bill’s faults as they saw them, including its lack of any sentencing revisions. The American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and other progressive groups opposed the bill.
Report: Half of US adults have immediate family member who has been in jail or prisonReport: Half of US adults have immediate family member who has been in jail or prison
Kushner offered to get involved but Jeffries insisted on handling it himself, according to Jones. In a day, Jeffries and his staffers wrote a point-by-point rebuttal to that letter while listening to the title tracks of one of the most famous rap battles, Jay-Z’s “Takeover” and Nas’ “Ether.” As they worked, Jeffries blasted the music on speakers in his office, according to an aide.
The next week, Jeffries stood up in a private House Democratic caucus meeting to defend his bill from the opposition of House Judiciary Committee ranking member Jerry Nadler of New York, former Attorney General Eric Holder and other powerful Democrats. “What I recall is that Rep. Jeffries knew the bill in depth; answered questions fully; and removed the doubts of some completely,” said Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California.
A few days later, the bill passed the House with 360 votes, including nearly 70% of the House Democratic caucus and almost every Republican voting in favor of it.
“It’s clear that some elements on the hard-left unleashed everything, including the kitchen sink, to try to stop the criminal justice reform effort in the House based on the worldview of all or nothing,” Jeffries told CNN. “In the House, we took the position that in order to break the back of the prison industrial complex we needed to begin with a significant, robust bipartisan effort around prison reform that could lay the foundation to get something done.”

Administration opposition

As Jeffries was dealing with skeptical Democrats, Kushner was fighting with Republican opponents in the Trump administration, most notably then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In initial drafts, Sessions and his aides at the Justice Department worked to insert provisions that advocates of the bill considered “poison pills,” including introducing a new mandatory minimum sentence — drawing uproar from Kushner’s new Democratic partners, who questioned whether the political risk of associating with the White House would be worth it.
“Jared and others at the White House who were working on this went to bat for us,” said Jessica Jackson Sloan, who along with Jones co-founded #Cut50, a group that advocates for reducing incarceration in the US. “Jared said, ‘I’m going to make sure this is right and I’m not going to let this crap happen again.’ “
“That was huge,” Jones said.
Within weeks, Jones returned the favor by appearing alongside Kushner at a May 18 White House event focused on the prison legislation. Just walking into the Trump White House, Jones said, felt like “political suicide.” He and others who appeared onstage were assailed as “Uncle Toms” on social media.
“They didn’t really understand why we were going,” said Topeka Sam, a former felon who attended the White House event. “The way we looked at it was, it’s our house and despite who’s in there, it’s our country. And if we’re looking to change what’s happening to our people that are incarcerated, that we need to be at the table.”
But the event offered proof of the bipartisan union that was coming together — with left- and right-leaning advocates in attendance. It was also an indication that Trump was edging in favor of the bill.
Seated in the front row of the gold-trimmed East Room, Mark Holden, senior vice president of Koch Industries, which has long advocated for criminal justice revisions, watched as Trump strayed from the teleprompter to make an off-script point about how a friend had hired some former prisoners who had turned out to be “superstars.” “They would have never gotten the chance,” said Trump.
To Holden and several administration officials, the riff was a sign that Trump wasn’t just going through the motions. He was in. It was also a notable affront to Sessions, who was also seated in the front row.
Around the time of the event, Sessions attended a meeting at the White House with Trump, Kushner and Energy Secretary Rick Perry — another longtime advocate of criminal justice revisions. Sessions came armed with a memorandum laying out his arguments against the bill. But he didn’t get far before Trump shut him down, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.
It didn’t help that by then, Sessions had become a regular target of Trump’s ire over his recusal from the Russia investigation. The mere fact that Sessions opposed the effort was almost enough to make the President support it.
“Trump liked the idea of overruling Sessions,” said one person familiar with the matter.
After getting his hair cut at the Senate barbershop Tuesday, Sessions declined to talk to CNN about the First Step Act on the record.

August setback

By August, momentum was building behind the bill.
Early that month, the President huddled at his Bedminster golf club with a group of Republican governors supportive of a criminal justice overhaul. There — as he would in the Oval Office a month later — Trump raised his concerns that he could face a Willie Horton moment of his own if he backed a bill that would grant early release to some convicted felons. The governors, a senior administration official said, helped assuage Trump’s concern and pointed him to the benefit of sentencing overhauls in their states.
But then — just as supporters of the bill expected a presidential endorsement was afoot — Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, managed to get face time with Trump while he was at the White House, reviving the President’s fears of Horton and reminding him of the political danger of endorsing the bill. That same day, McConnell told Trump the prison overhaul bill was too divisive among Republicans to bring to a vote before the midterm elections, multiple sources familiar with the call told CNN.
Under pressure, Trump agreed to table the issue until after the midterms.
“At that point, we thought everything had died,” said Jones.
Kushner extracted a promise from McConnell to bring the bill to a vote after the midterms if a whip count showed they had the votes. The delay gave supporters a chance to regroup and expand their coalition. Kushner began calling Sen. Mike Lee of Utah so frequently that when he interrupted Lee’s family dinner during a vacation in Canada, they knew who it was. “My family said, ‘Oh it’s Jared, isn’t it?’ ” Lee recalled.
To gain the backing of law enforcement groups such as the Fraternal Order of Police, and National District Attorneys Associations, supporters offered a few key concessions, including one that excludes people convicted of certain fentanyl-related offenses from being eligible for early release. That helped undercut the position of Cotton and other opponents, and positioned Kushner to present a strengthened bill to the President.

McConnell boxed in

On November 14, Trump delivered his endorsement in the White House Roosevelt Room, giving shout-outs to a number of Republican senators who wrote the revised bill — Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham, Lee, Tim Scott, Rand Paul — and Rep. Collins, an original co-author.
By then, most Senate Democrats had also jumped on board after some key sentencing provisions were added, including one that Senate Democratic Whip Durbin fought for in 2010 that reduced the disparity between sentences for powder vs. crack cocaine. The new legislation will apply that change retroactively to about 2,600 inmates who had been convicted under the previous statute.
There was still just one problem: McConnell was dragging his feet. The day after Trump gave his endorsement, the Senate majority leader told Trump in the Oval Office that he would not bring the measure up for a vote until next year, two administration officials said, pushing the careful compromise into the pit of divided government just as Democrats regain control of the House. Advocates were worried that decision could kill the bill, just as McConnell’s reluctance to bring up a previous Senate bill sponsored by his whip, Sen. John Cornyn, and others stifled another effort at the end of the Obama administration.
Mitch McConnell faces tough choice on criminal justice proposalMitch McConnell faces tough choice on criminal justice proposal
Kushner and his allies began to ramp up pressure on McConnell. Conservatives flooded his office with calls, including thousands organized by the Koch-sponsored group FreedomWorks, which also mounted a pressure campaign in Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn’s home state of Texas.
McConnell needed to “hear from everyone who matters to him and that the cost to him of not doing this was going to be greater” than moving forward, a senior administration official said.
Even Trump put on the pressure, urging McConnell several times over the phone to bring the bill to the floor. And while some urged the President to attack McConnell on Twitter, Kushner convinced him to hold his fire, trusting McConnell would ultimately relent.

Lee unleashed

By the end of the month, Cornyn’s office was telling the White House they didn’t have the votes, claiming support for the bill was softer than it appeared, two sources familiar with the matter said.
Even after Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House legislative affairs team did their own whip count and concluded they had over 60 votes, McConnell still wouldn’t commit to bringing the bill to a vote before the end of the year. So Lee went into overdrive, lobbying his fellow senators day and night, by phone, by text, in person on the Senate floor, at lunch in the Senate cafeteria. “I went nuts,” Lee told CNN.
A pivotal moment came when Lee’s friend, the conservative Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, signed on after they added certain provisions that would make it harder for some offenders to get shorter sentences or early release. Cruz was number “29 or 30” in Lee’s mind — more than enough to get the bill up for a vote and easily pass the Senate.
On December 10, Darrell Scott, a black pastor and early Trump supporter, warned McConnell’s legal counsel that he would send hundreds of black pastors and activists — in his words, “500 angry black people” — to the Senate majority leader’s office if he didn’t take action.
That evening, Kushner made his most public push yet, appearing on Trump’s favorite show — “Hannity” on Fox News — to plug the bill.
The next day, McConnell announced he would put the bill on the floor at the request of the President. Scott called McConnell to shower him with praise.
“I told him, ‘We’re going to build statues of you in the hood,’ ” Scott recalled.
A week later, on the day the bill passed the Senate, Jones and Kushner had an early-morning phone call to coordinate their efforts.
“The next 48 hours are critical,” Jones jokingly told Kushner, echoing a phrase he had heard from Kushner at the end of nearly every one of their calls.
But the goal line was actually much closer, Kushner replied. “I actually think it’s only the next 12,” he said.

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