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How criminal justice overhaul will affect life for inmates

President Trump has signed a landmark criminal justice bill. The First Step Act increases judges' discretion on sentencing low-level offenders, provides incentives for prison rehabilitation programs and requires inmates to be located within 500 miles of family. As Yamiche Alcindor reports, the legislation earned rare bipartisan support and grants hope to thousands with incarcerated loved ones.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is a new law in the land today meant to address two central tenets of American life: freedom and justice.

    In the last 40 years, the federal prison population has risen by more than 600 percent.

    Yamiche Alcindor reports on a rare bipartisan push to bring big changes for some 180,000 inmates.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Angel Gregorio hasn't seen her two brothers in more than a decade. They're both doing time in federal prison for murder. Her younger brother is more than 1,300 miles away in Beaumont, Texas.

  • Angel Gregorio:

    Just, financially, it's a burden. Logistically, it's a burden.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    At her spice shop in Washington, D.C., she is hoping a new federal law will bring her brothers and other federal inmates closer to their families.

  • Angel Gregorio:

    We aren't asking you that you open up the floodgates and let everybody out of prison. We're just asking that you bring them a little closer, so we can come and see them, hug them, talk to them, not have to spend so much money on phone calls just to stay connected.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Under the new criminal justice law signed by President Trump today, federal inmates will be placed in prisons within 500 miles of their families. That's just one of the changes coming from the FIRST STEP Act.

    It's a rare bipartisan effort that deals with both sentencing and prison reforms. It will also lower mandatory minimum sentences. It will retroactively change sentencing disparities for drug crimes, including for powder and crack cocaine. Such differences have often led to longer prison times for African-Americans.

    Those changes will benefit about 2,000 inmates. They could shave 53,000 years off sentences over the next 10 years. The bill would also end life sentences under the three-strike law established in a 1994 crime bill. There are also changes to encourage prisoners to participate in recidivism programs.

    In an often bitterly divided Washington, the bill was passed overwhelmingly by both chambers of Congress. It united conservatives like the Koch brothers with liberal groups like the ACLU. Even celebrities, like Kim Kardashian, voiced their support.

    But the road to yes was long.

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    This is truly a landmark piece of legislation. It's the biggest criminal justice reform in a generation.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That was three years ago. Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and a bipartisan Senate group announced a similar effort. Then-President Obama pushed hard. He became the first sitting president to ever visit a federal prison.

  • Barack Obama:

    That's what strikes me, there but for the grace of God.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But the effort fell short when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn't let it come to vote.

  • Donald Trump:

    In this race for the White House, I am the law and order candidate.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    McConnell was bowing to pressure from the Republican base and a vocal tough-on-crime candidate named Donald Trump. In a crowded field of 17 GOP candidates, Mr. Trump consistently led in the polls.

    After the election, Mr. Trump doubled down on being a law and order president.

  • Donald Trump:

    And when you see these towns, and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in. Rough. I said, please don't be too nice.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So how did the president go from lock them up to let them out? Some point to Mr. Trump's son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner.

  • Jared Kushner:

    This is an issue I had personal experience with.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Kushner's motivation was personal. His own father served 14 months in federal prison, after pleading guilty to illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering.

  • Jared Kushner:

    We're putting too much money towards warehousing people who we don't need to be warehousing. That money instead should be going to lawmakers on the front lines to keep our communities safe.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Another thing that Angel thinks led to this change is a stark increase in the number of people going to jail for drug offenses.

  • Angel Gregorio:

    I think, once anything starts to impact folks who are not just black and brown, then you get this sort of bipartisanship. You know, like, now that you have so many white people who are being locked up for these drug offenses, it's like, OK, we need to do something about this.

    So, it's like, you take it. Like, you take what you can get, right?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In November, the president came around.

  • Donald Trump:

    Today, I'm thrilled to announce my support for this bipartisan bill that will make our communities safer and give former inmates a second chance at life after they have served their time.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Still, not every Republican is on board. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton remains a vocal opponent.

  • Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.:

    I think many of the policies in this bill are deeply unwise, to allow early release from prison thousands of serious, repeat and potentially violent felons over the next few months.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Some of the bill's liberal opposition and even some of its supporters say it doesn't go far enough.

  • Illinois Senator Dick Durbin:

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    We're not finished. It's entitled the FIRST STEP. What's the second step?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The new law applies only to federal prisoners. That's less than 10 percent of the 2.3 million people behind bars. Advocates say they will continue to push for more reforms, including at the state level.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

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