By Zachary Stieber
Republican President Donald Trump was awarded the Bipartisan Justice Award on Oct. 25 for his work on the First Step Act.
Trump thanked lawmakers from both sides who worked with him on the legislation, which he signed late last year, and specifically thanked Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and South Carolina Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Democrat.
“Last year we brought the whole country together to achieve a truly momentous milestone. They said it couldn’t be done,” Trump told the crowd at the 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum at Benedict College in South Carolina, where he received the award and met with people released after the act was passed.
“We assembled a historic coalition. We had them so liberal you wouldn’t believe it, we had them so conservative you wouldn’t believe it.”
Trump said he plans future efforts on the criminal justice reform front.
“We call it the First Step Act. I like the idea of calling it criminal justice reform. But this allows a second step and a third act,” he said.
Trump introduced several people to the crowd who benefited from the act, including Alice Johnson, who had been serving a life sentence for cocaine trafficking, and Tenesha Bannister, who served 16 years of a 23-year sentence for possession of drugs with intent to distribute.
Trump said hearing stories he thought displayed injustice motivated him to pursue reform in the criminal justice system.
“We rolled back the provisions of the 1994 Clinton crime law, which disproportionately harmed the African American community,” he said, prompting cheers.
Trump later said the strong economy helps people leaving prison.
“As a result of our tax cuts, our regulatory cuts … the energy reforms, our economy is booming. Nothing better for former prisoners that are coming home, when there’s very low unemployment,” he said.
“They come out and are being hired. I have people who are doing the hiring saying these people are incredible. Maybe our economy is the best criminal justice reform of all.”
Before Trump’s speech, Matthew Charles, one of the first prisoners released by the act, spoke to the crowd before introducing the president.
“I would not be a free man today if Donald J Trump had not supported and signed the First Step Act,” he said.
The Department of Justice told Congress in a hearing last week (pdf) that over 1,500 inmates have been released because of the sentencing reductions in the act and another over 3,000 were released because of the re-programming of time off for good behavior.
Another 95 inmates were able to obtain “compassionate release,” the Bureau of Prisons said, and some 2,000 inmates were on home confinement under the expanded use of home confinement for low-risk offenders authorized by the act.
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