President Trump backs prison reform legislation co-written by Utah Sen. Mike Lee

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) President Donald Trump speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, to announce his support for the first major rewrite of the nation's criminal justice sentencing laws in a generation.

Washington • President Donald Trump on Wednesday gave a hearty endorsement to stalled legislation to reform the nation’s prison system, hoping to change mandatory sentencing laws long blamed for overcrowding prisons and disproportionately incarcerating black people for minor crimes.

The House passed a bill to overhaul the federal prison system but the bill got stuck in the Senate after negotiations broke down. Trump’s support for a new measure, co-written by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, that seeks to find a compromise that can pass and could overcome opposition by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others.

“Working together with my administration over the last two years, these members have reached a bipartisan agreement,” Trump said at a White House event surrounded by law enforcement officials, members of Congress, as well as justice advocates. The president specifically called out Lee for his help.

“Did I heard the word ‘bipartisan?’” Trump said. “Did I hear — did I hear that word? That’s a nice word. Bipartisan agreement on prison-reform legislation known as the first step. And that’s what it is; it’s the first step. But it’s a very big first step.”

The bill would lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug felonies and reduce the different standards applied to whether someone is caught with crack or powder cocaine. Current U.S. law sets a longer sentence for possession of crack cocaine, a point that advocates say disproportionately affects black Americans.

The new deal also reduces the federal “three strikes” penalty to 25 years instead of life in prison.

Lee, who has made prison reform one of his top priorities, was at the White House for the announcement and said the president’s help would go a long way to finally getting legislation passed.

“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,” Lee said in a statement after. “This legislation strengthens public safety by increasing faith in the criminal-justice system, reducing recidivism, and protecting vulnerable families. Now it is time for the Senate to act by bringing this important bipartisan legislation to the Senate floor.”

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had been a sharp critic of the prison reform legislation but his firing last week opened the door for Trump to back the bill. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has joined with advocates to push for reform.

Former U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, who has worked to change the mandatory sentencing laws for nearly a decade, was also at the White House for Trump’s remarks and heralded the support as a way to break through the congressional logjam.

“I think it was a strong statement,” Tolman said after the event. “The president said that he’s waiting at his desk with a pen and wants to get it done. You know, if we miss this opportunity – it’s one of the last remaining moments of real, true bipartisanship working/roll up your sleeves/get in the room/hash it out and make laws.”

Tolman, now in private practice, said the new legislation would create “safety valves” that allow prosecutors to use the system to go after bigger crimes than lower-level offenders.

He notes that as the top federal prosecutor in Utah, such changes would have made a monumental difference in how he went after crime.

“I could have used that to gather intel on the higher-ups and the kingpins and actually done more with my investigations,” Tolman said. “We're not just being smart on crime, we're being effective at increasing public safety.”

Weldon Angelos, a Utah music producer who was sentenced to up to 63 years in prison for selling marijuana while carrying a firearm despite having no prior criminal history, also spoke out Wednesday, joining in signing a star-studded letter – along with Chelsea Handler, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Alyssa Milano among others – advocating for Congress to pass the legislation. The judge who was required to impose the sentence had pleaded for clemency for Angelos, who was ultimately released from prison in 2016 after serving 13 years.

The bill, the letter signers wrote, “aligns with our goals of smart reforms that promote public safety, restore dignity to incarcerated people, and provide meaningful opportunities for successful transition back to their communities after prison. We believe that our criminal justice system must recognize the humanity of the 2.2 million people currently behind bars, heal victims, reduce crime and move toward compassion and treatment rather than just punishment and incarceration.”

The letter, sent to Senate leaders, says the bill will “lead to better outcomes for individuals reintegrating back into their communities — and for society as a whole.”