The changes include shortening mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses and changing the “three strikes” penalty to 25 years from life in prison. They would give judges greater ability to use so-called safety valves to sidestep mandatory minimums in some cases. And the bill would clarify that the so-called stacking mechanism making it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense, should apply only to individuals who have previously been convicted.
It would also extend retroactively a reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine signed into law in 2010, which could affect thousands of drug offenders serving lengthy sentences for crack-cocaine offenses, which were dealt with far more harshly than the same crimes involving powder cocaine. That disparity hit black Americans hard while letting many white drug dealers off with lighter punishments.
The other half of the proposed bill creates a suite of incentives and new programs aimed at reducing recidivism rates, as well as provisions to improve conditions for incarcerated women.
The changes have attracted a broad and unusual group of supporters, such as the billionaire conservative brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch and the American Civil Liberties Union, who view similar changes on the state level as successful models for federal policy. Advocates on the right see an opportunity to begin to cut into the high costs of the nation’s 2.2 million-person prison population. On the left, the current sentencing laws are thought to have unfairly incarcerated a generation of young men, particularly African-American men, for drug and other nonviolent offenses.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police organization, said last Friday that it would support the bill, and the National Sheriffs’ Association appeared to have dropped some previous objections after exceptions were made to block certain fentanyl offenders from eligibility for “good-time credits” included in the prison overhaul portion of the bill.
But powerful pockets of opposition remain among some law enforcement officials and conservative lawmakers like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who argue that sentencing changes like those proposed pose a risk to public safety. These opponents lost a powerful ally within the administration when Mr. Trump fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, last week. Mr. Sessions’s temporary replacement, Matthew G. Whitaker, has signaled that he is more open to the changes.
Mr. Trump himself is leery of appearing weak on crime, and he has been susceptible to arguments from opponents of a sentencing overhaul that endorsing one could arm his critics. Still, Mr. Kushner has pressed the issue for months, and some of the president’s advisers say they think the effort could help improve his anemic standing with African-American voters, even if only marginally.