President Trump is expected to endorse a sweeping criminal justice reform bill called the First Step Act on Wednesday. It’s been a long time coming. Though the Trump administration hasn’t expressed much sympathy for criminals, the issue of prison reform has managed to gain some traction in the White House. Senior Adviser Jared Kushner has worked to build support around legislation that would strengthen the rehabilitation process, and sentencing reform became a mainstream issue earlier this year with the help of Kim Kardashian West who has twice visited the White Houseto lobby the president. Her first trip, in May, resulted in the pardon of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old who was serving a life sentence for a non-violent drug conviction.
Since taking up Johnson’s cause, Kardashian West has partnered with #cut50, a bipartisan criminal justice reform organization founded by CNN’s Van Jones and attorney Jessica Jackson Sloan. In January, Kushner reached out to #cut50 for help with what was then called the Prison Reform and Redemption Act. In May, the House of Representatives passed a reworked version of the bill called the First Step Act, although it failed to garner enough support to make it through the Senate. The bill has since been reworked again to include sentencing reform (the initial version didn’t), and is now poised for a presidential endorsement. It’s supported by party leaders on both sides of the aisle, the ACLU, the Koch brothers, several law enforcement agencies and, as Rolling Stone learned Wednesday morning, a list of over 50 celebrities that have signed a letter addressed congressional leaders urging them to take the steps necessary to sign the bill into law before Congress breaks in mid-December.
Among the celebrities to sign the letter are musicians like Kanye West, Aloe Blacc, Peter Gabriel and Esperanza Spalding; actors like Alyssa Milano, Courtney Cox and Alicia Silverstone; athletes like Baron Davis, Delanie Walker and Benjamin Watson; and plenty of other notable figures like Kardashian West, Mark Cuban, Eric Bolling and even fired White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci. “I am proud to stand with this incredible group of artists, content creators, and athletes in urging Congress to pass the First Step Act,” Van Jones, who also signed the letter, tells Rolling Stone in a statement. “Who would have thought that a plan to give incarcerated people a better chance would unite people in both parties and at all levels of society?”
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“There’s been such an organic migration of folks to this issue,” adds Sloan while speaking to Rolling Stone by phone. “When we started working on First Step, we naturally reached out to the folks we’ve been working with over the last three years, and they started talking to their friends about it. Like the average American person, celebrities and artists and athletes are excited to hear about an opportunity for some positive movement on the federal level and that we had found an area where there could be bipartisanship that can lead to relief for so many people who are inside our prisons.”
The New York Times on Monday reported on the language of the updated bill, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to bring to a vote if he can secure the support of at least 60 senators.
The new version of the First Step Act would eliminate stacking regulations that make it illegal to posses a firearm while committing another crime, shorten the mandatory minimum sentence for those found guilty nonviolent drug offenses and allow judges leeway to circumvent mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders when they see fit. The bill would also retroactively extend the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which could affect thousands of drug offenders serving disproportionately long sentences, according to the Times.
“The latest bill really shows a solid compromise,” says Sloan. “It’s got prison reform. It’s got sentencing reform. It’s got some very critical reforms that will begin to treat people inside prison with dignity. It’s really achieved its overall purpose of making it easier for people coming home to get on the ground, job-ready.”
Sloan notes that though Trump’s endorsement, which CNN reported was forthcoming, represents the clearing of a “major hurdle,” there is still work to be done before the First Step Act is signed into law. McConnell promising to bring the bill to a vote is one thing; actually doing it before Congress breaks next month is another. If the updated bill does indeed pass through the Senate, it would still need to circle back through the House before finding its way to Trump’s desk. “With the recent election, there are some folks on the Democratic side who are wondering why they shouldn’t wait until next year to try to do something stronger, and there are some folks on the Republican side who have questions around sentencing reform,” cautions Sloan. The letter signed by over 50 celebrities, another signed by over 100 organizations and rallies taking place across the country this week are meant to signal to Congress that the time is now to pass meaningful criminal justice reform.
If the First Step Act is indeed signed into law, it would be a notable bipartisan achievement considering the Trump administration’s tough stance on crime, as well as how difficult it’s been for Congress to reach across-the-aisle consensus since the president took office. Sloan attributes the progress they’ve made with prison reform to #cut50’s bipartisan origins, as well as its mission of cultivating “unlikely allies on both sides of the aisle,” which has led them to enlist celebrities to trumpet the cause. She sees their approach to criminal justice reform as a potential rubric for reaching bipartisan compromise on other issues.
“We started with our values,” she explains. “Nobody thinks it’s fair for someone who has gotten a drug offense to spend the rest of their life in prison. Nobody thinks it’s fair for people coming home who have served their time and paid their debt to society to be trapped by that felony conviction and unable to get employment or housing. Nobody thinks it’s smart to simply warehouse people for decades and then let them out with no training or therapy or investment into them. We started with these principles, not by talking about solutions. That’s something that can really translate to other areas. If we really strip it down and start with the principles and common values, we’re able to get a lot more done.”