How criminal justice overhaul will affect life for inmates

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is a new law in the land
today meant to address two central tenets of American life: freedom and justice. In the last 40 years, the federal prison population
has risen by more than 600 percent. Yamiche Alcindor reports on a rare bipartisan
push to bring big changes for some 180,000 inmates. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Angel Gregorio hasn’t seen
her two brothers in more than a decade. They’re both doing time in federal prison
for murder. Her younger brother is more than 1,300 miles
away in Beaumont, Texas. ANGEL GREGORIO, Sister of Federal Prisoners:
Just, financially, it’s a burden. Logistically, it’s a burden. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: At her spice shop in Washington,
D.C., she is hoping a new federal law will bring her brothers and other federal inmates
closer to their families. ANGEL GREGORIO: We aren’t asking you that
you open up the floodgates and let everybody out of prison. We’re just asking that you bring them a little
closer, so we can come and see them, hug them, talk to them, not have to spend so much money
on phone calls just to stay connected. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Under the new criminal justice
law signed by President Trump today, federal inmates will be placed in prisons within 500
miles of their families. That’s just one of the changes coming from
the FIRST STEP Act. It’s a rare bipartisan effort that deals with
both sentencing and prison reforms. It will also lower mandatory minimum sentences. It will retroactively change sentencing disparities
for drug crimes, including for powder and crack cocaine. Such differences have often led to longer
prison times for African-Americans. Those changes will benefit about 2,000 inmates. They could shave 53,000 years off sentences
over the next 10 years. The bill would also end life sentences under
the three-strike law established in a 1994 crime bill. There are also changes to encourage prisoners
to participate in recidivism programs. In an often bitterly divided Washington, the
bill was passed overwhelmingly by both chambers of Congress. It united conservatives like the Koch brothers
with liberal groups like the ACLU. Even celebrities, like Kim Kardashian, voiced
their support. But the road to yes was long. SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), Iowa: This is truly
a landmark piece of legislation. It’s the biggest criminal justice reform in
a generation. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: That was three years ago. Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and a bipartisan
Senate group announced a similar effort. Then-President Obama pushed hard. He became the first sitting president to ever
visit a federal prison. BARACK OBAMA, Former President of the United
States: That’s what strikes me, there but for the grace of God. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: But the effort fell short
when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t let it come to vote. DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States:
In this race for the White House, I am the law and order candidate. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) YAMICHE ALCINDOR: McConnell was bowing to
pressure from the Republican base and a vocal tough-on-crime candidate named Donald Trump. In a crowded field of 17 GOP candidates, Mr.
Trump consistently led in the polls. After the election, Mr. Trump doubled down
on being a law and order president. DONALD TRUMP: And when you see these towns,
and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see
them thrown in. Rough. I said, please don’t be too nice. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: So how did the president
go from lock them up to let them out? Some point to Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and White
House adviser Jared Kushner. JARED KUSHNER, Senior Presidential Adviser:
This is an issue I had personal experience with. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Kushner’s motivation was
personal. His own father served 14 months in federal
prison, after pleading guilty to illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering. JARED KUSHNER: We’re putting too much money
towards warehousing people who we don’t need to be warehousing. That money instead should be going to lawmakers
on the front lines to keep our communities safe. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Another thing that Angel
thinks led to this change is a stark increase in the number of people going to jail for
drug offenses. ANGEL GREGORIO: I think, once anything starts
to impact folks who are not just black and brown, then you get this sort of bipartisanship. You know, like, now that you have so many
white people who are being locked up for these drug offenses, it’s like, OK, we need to do
something about this. So, it’s like, you take it. Like, you take what you can get, right? YAMICHE ALCINDOR: In November, the president
came around. DONALD TRUMP: Today, I’m thrilled to announce
my support for this bipartisan bill that will make our communities safer and give former
inmates a second chance at life after they have served their time. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Still, not every Republican
is on board. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton remains a vocal
opponent. SEN. TOM COTTON (R), Arkansas: I think many of
the policies in this bill are deeply unwise, to allow early release from prison thousands
of serious, repeat and potentially violent felons over the next few months. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Some of the bill’s liberal
opposition and even some of its supporters say it doesn’t go far enough. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin: SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL), Minority Whip: We’re
not finished. It’s entitled the FIRST STEP. What’s the second step? YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The new law applies only
to federal prisoners. That’s less than 10 percent of the 2.3 million
people behind bars. Advocates say they will continue to push for
more reforms, including at the state level. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Yamiche Alcindor.

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