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Trump Supports Changes To Criminal Justice System

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What would sentencing reform mean now that both parties say they agree on a version of it? President Trump supports bipartisan changes to mandatory sentencing rules. This plan before Congress does not abolish mandatory minimum sentences, but it does allow some inmates to earn early release. Holly Harris directs the conservative group the Justice Action Network which has been lobbying for reforms, and she's on the line. Good morning.

HOLLY HARRIS: Good morning. I would correct one thing. We are a bipartisan group.

INSKEEP: OK.

HARRIS: So it's very important to us that this legislation is supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

INSKEEP: Noted. Noted. What kinds of inmates are affected here?

HARRIS: Well, actually, all of them. This legislation is actually very broad, very sweeping. You mentioned the prison reforms. There are some first-step sentencing reforms in this package. There are reforms for incarcerated women. This bill actually eliminates the shackling of pregnant women, which has become a real problem across this country, and allows more time for women who've had their babies in prison to spend with their newborns. The bill also allows for the expansion of a good time credit that all currently incarcerated individuals can take advantage of.

So it's a broad, sweeping bill. The sentencing reforms are not as deep as we had hoped. But this is the broadest possible bill that we can get to the president's desk this year. Thousands of Americans are counting on us to provide relief to so many families who've become entangled in our criminal justice system.

INSKEEP: When you say the reforms are not as deep, let's talk about that part, Ms. Harris, because we're addressing an issue a lot of people are concerned about really long sentences, especially for nonviolent offenses like drug offenses. The mandatory minimums remain. It sounds like some people might be able to get a get-out-of-jail-early card through whatever means, but there's going to continue to be really long sentences handed down for nonviolent offenders. Isn't that right?

HARRIS: You're exactly right about that. Now, I would note that the bill does expand an existing safety valve which does allow judges to deviate from unduly harsh penalties when circumstances warrant. I would raise the case of Alice Marie Johnson, you know, who was granted clemency by the president. You know, here's a woman who was a first-time nonviolent drug offender who received what would have amounted to a life sentence, which is outrageous. And there are so many individuals who are currently incarcerated who face those circumstances. So now, judges have more discretion to, again, deviate from those mandatory minimums when they think the punishment would not fit the crime.

INSKEEP: OK. So the mandatory minimums are not totally unchanged, but they remain in place. You still have a problem that's going to continue in that sense.

HARRIS: Yes. And, you know, again, this bill is called the first step. So, you know, this is not the end of the road. In fact, it's just the beginning. And while the bill is comprehensive and it's broad and it's sweeping and it's groundbreaking, there's so much left to do. You know, this bill doesn't address expungement. That's another category of reform that we work on at the Justice Action Network. There's really no vehicle for a clean slate. We're going to see that legislation, I think, at the federal level very soon.

There's so many reforms left to work on - bail reform. There's another big one. Kamala Harris and Senator Rand Paul from my home state of Kentucky have a great bill. So this is just the beginning, but it is a groundbreaking step forward in that it's really the first time in decades that we've turned away from the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key policies of the '80s and '90s, specifically that '94 crime bill.

INSKEEP: You have about 20 seconds here, but I just want to ask - this bans the shackling of pregnant women. Is that really a big thing, something prisons have done a lot?

HARRIS: Big thing. Big thing. It would - it's shocking, actually. And actually, the American Medical Association, so many physicians and doctors' associations across the country have said this is very, very scary and can be damaging to both the health of the mother and the baby. So in that way, again, this bill includes a lot of reforms that weren't included in the previous package. And we're very excited now. The president has endorsed. You got Dick Durbin. You got Chuck Grassley. We've got them all now. We just need Mitt Mitch McConnell to send the bill to the floor.

INSKEEP: Holly Harris of the Justice Action Network. Thanks.

HARRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.