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Senate Approves Bipartisan Criminal Justice Bill


Democrats and Republicans came together on Capitol Hill last night. The Senate overwhelmingly approved the First Step Act. It's a criminal justice bill that would reduce prison sentences and offer more job training, with a goal of cutting down on repeat offenders. It now goes to the House with support from President Trump, who tweeted after the Senate vote, quote, "this will keep our communities safer and provide hope and a second chance to those who earn it." We have a key supporter of the bill with us this morning. It's Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. Senator, good morning.

CORY BOOKER: Good morning. Thank you for having me on.

GREENE: Well, thanks for taking the time. So much to talk about in this bill. I mean, can you point, though, to maybe what you see is the most important change it would bring?

BOOKER: Well, I think that this is something that's going to change decades and decades of sentencing, where people were putting in more harsh sentencing - three strikes, you're out, harsher mandatory minimums that exploded our federal prison population 800 percent by - since 1980 alone. And so something we fought for in the Senate and were able to get in is a whole array of sentencing reform changes that bring proportionality back - or more proportionality - to our criminal justice system, help to liberate people who have been unjustly sentenced.

For example, when the crack cocaine, powder cocaine sentencing disparity was 100-to-1, it was - when we changed that, it was never retroactive. So this is something that will begin for the first time - really, in my lifetime - that we are doing things to make our justice system more just and stop this explosion of a war on drugs that just drove up our prison population in America, making us distinctive in humanity for having 1 out of every 4 incarcerated people on the planet Earth here in the United States.

GREENE: I know this is an issue you've been working very hard on. You said it was a moving night for you, this vote, and that this is literally one of the reasons you became a U.S. senator. What do you mean?

BOOKER: Well, I'm the only United States senator that lives in an inner-city, low-income, black-and-brown community where the criminal justice system's worst ills are often seen. We live in a nation where there's no difference between blacks and whites for using drugs or even selling drugs. But African-Americans are about four times more likely to be arrested for it. And if you're black and you're poor, the criminal justice system is just really an unfortunate and ugly place to the point now that there are more men under - more black men under criminal supervision than all the slaves in 1850 - than the men that were slaves in 1850.

And we have a dramatically unfair system that treats you better, as Bryan Stevenson says, if you're rich and guilty than poor and innocent. And so, for me, these are very personal issues. I see them every day in how people get a different justice system based upon where they live in America, where we have a country where 2 out of the last 3 presidents have done things that people are sitting in jail right now for.

So I came to the United States Senate to begin to try to restore justice. It has an economic impact by stripping people of their abilities to get jobs, to get business licenses, to get loans from banks. And so, for me, this has been five years of work. And thankfully, because of leadership on the other side of the aisle who partnered with me and my leader, Dick Durbin, in all of this, this finally got done where we made a step.

And it's just a step. This is not complete reform. This is one step in a mile journey, but it's going to make a difference for thousands of people, disproportionately low-income people, disproportionately people of color.

GREENE: Well I - you say support from the other side. I mean, President Trump seemed to do a lot to make this happen. Do you see him differently this morning as someone that you and Democrats might be able to work with?

BOOKER: You know, I don't - I don't see him differently. Obviously, a lot of the things he does, particularly in communities like the ones I live in, are grievous and painful. But, you know, we as Americans have to begin to work together more, despite dramatic disagreements. We've become far too tribal in our country.

And, you know, one second, I was battling with Lindsey Graham over the Kavanaugh hearing in ways that were hurtful, I think, to a lot of people on both sides. And then, literally days later, he and I are on the phone with the White House negotiating a position that I was very firm on to get an effective end to juvenile solitary confinement - which other countries consider torture - into this bill. And Lindsey Graham was one of my best allies in getting it done.

GREENE: All right. Well, we'll have to stop there, Senator. I thank you so much, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey - Democrat of New Jersey. We appreciate your time this morning.

BOOKER: No, thank you. Thank you for having me on.

GREENE: I want to turn now to NPR's White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, who's been listening in. Ayesha, how - what do you make of Senator Booker, what he said about President Trump and how much President Trump did to make this happen?

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: President Trump did put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring this up because it seemed for a while like McConnell was saying, we don't know if we'll have time. He seemed to be kind of putting it off because there was a very vocal contingent of Republicans in the Senate who raised a lot of concerns about this bill. But with Trump's support, McConnell brought it up.

GREENE: Has the president's position evolved on this?

RASCOE: It has been - I would say it's been mixed because, as you remember, his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, actually rolled back some of the changes that were made under the Obama administration and kind of directed prosecutors to seek the toughest punishments, even for nonviolent drug offenders. But for this, he came out in support of it. It seemed like a lot of it had to do with Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and adviser, who was pushing to get this done. And so President Trump did come out in support of it. And he tweeted about it and kind of really made a push on it.

GREENE: Is everybody happy with this bill?

RASCOE: Not everyone. There are some groups like Just Leadership USA, who say that this bill doesn't help people who are - who have been affected by these sentencing laws. Like some people who have life sentences, it doesn't help them - people who have already been sentenced - and that it just doesn't go far enough. And there are some on the right who say that this bill could let out violent criminals and that they could commit crimes again. So there is concern on the right and the left.

GREENE: NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe. Thanks so much, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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