SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump has thrown his support behind bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation that Utah Sen. Mike Lee helped write.
At a White House event on Wednesday, Trump endorsed the First Step Act, which would loosen some federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. He said the legislation would "make our communities safer and give former inmates a second chance at life after they have served their time."
A former federal prosecutor, Lee has long argued that federal sentencing guidelines too often require punishments that don't fit the crime.
Lee thanked Trump for getting behind the long-stalled measure that Senate Republicans and Democrats hammered out after months of negotiations.
"President Trump has always been a strong voice for tough-on-crime policies, and his endorsement of bipartisan criminal justice reform is a huge win for the American people," he said in a statement. "This legislation strengthens public safety by increasing faith in the criminal justice system, reducing recidivism and protecting vulnerable families."
Trump said the announcement shows that "true bipartisanship" is possible, adding "I'll be waiting with a pen" if Congress can get the bill passed.
“This is a big breakthrough for a lot of people," he said. "They’ve been talking about this for many, many years.”
The president said he was "surprised" at some of the politicians involved in the legislation.
"Like, as an example, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, and others," Trump said, drawing laughter in the room. "No, it’s got tremendous support at every level."
Lee has pushed legislation for years that expands federal judges’ now-limited discretion to mete out sentences that are neither too lenient nor too harsh and that fit the crime and the criminal.
He often cites the 55-year prison sentenced imposed on Weldon Angelos, a father of two boys who had no prior criminal convictions, in 2002 for selling dime bags of marijuana to a confidential police informant three times. At one sale, he had a gun in his car and in another he had it strapped to his ankle. Police found another gun in a bag in his apartment.
Under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, the judge had no choice but to impose what amounted to a lifetime behind bars. Angelos was released from prison in 2016 without explanation.
Angelos, a former music producer turned justice reform advocate, helped organize a letter signed by more than 50 celebrities, including Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and Alyssa Milano, urging Congress to pass the legislation.
"When the public sees judges handing out unfair punishments, it undermines trust in the entire justice system," Lee wrote in a Fox News op-ed.
Lee said excessive prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, especially those with no prior criminal history, often do far more harm than good. Such sentences can break apart families and weaken communities.
"Incarceration is an essential law enforcement tool that protects communities and keeps families safe," he wrote. "But it also inflicts costs on communities and families, and at some point the negative impact of incarceration on marriage and family can become too stark to ignore."
In May, the House passed the First Step Act, which includes measures to reduce recidivism, but does not address sentencing for nonviolent offenders.
The Senate compromise would add four provisions to the House bill, including lowering mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies and reducing the “three strikes” penalty from life in prison to 25 years.
The legislation would also provide new incentives for low-risk federal inmates to gain employment skills and allow inmates to be placed closer to their home communities to help facilitate family visitation.