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Touting Law To Help Prisoners, Trump Says Knows What It's Like To Be Treated Unfairly

President Trump delivers remarks at the 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum in Columbia, South Carolina. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump delivers remarks at the 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum in Columbia, South Carolina. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump said on Friday that he knows what it's like to be treated unfairly, comparing his own experience with an impeachment inquiry in Congress to inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Trump was speaking at the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum held at the historically black Benedict College in South Carolina. The forum also featured Democrats vying for the presidential nomination, and was focused on the future of criminal justice policies.

"Our citizens will never let up on our efforts to ensure that our justice system is fair for every single American, and I have my own experience, you know that, you see what's going on with the witch hunt," Trump said, referring to the special counsel investigation into his presidential campaign and the ongoing impeachment inquiry.

These comments come in a week where Trump faced bipartisan criticism for likening the impeachment probe to a "lynching."

Earlier in his speech, Trump invited former prisoners up to the stage to tell their stories about re-entering society. One of those former inmates, Alice Marie Johnson, spent more than 20 years in federal prison for a first time drug offense before her sentence was commuted by Trump last year.

While it was an official White House event, the remarks often took on more of campaign feel, with the audience chanting "four more years."

Only seven Benedict College students were actually in attendance, according to a college spokeswoman.

Rolling Out the First Step Act

Trump spent most of his speech promoting his support for the First Step Act, which reduced sentences for some federal drug offenses and provided incentives for prisoners to participate in training programs.

Only 8 percent of African-Americans voted for Trump in 2016, but Trump has argued — without offering much evidence — that his support from black voters is growing. The White House points to record low black unemployment and the First Step Act as signature achievements for the African-American community.

More than 4,700 prisoners have already been released under sentencing reductions included in the law.

"The biggest thing was making sure it was fully funded, which we've done," said Ja'Ron Smith of the White House Office of American Innovation. Smith has worked closely with Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and adviser, to help shepherd the policy into fruition.

A Senate subcommittee recently voted in favor of appropriating the full $75 million required to pay for the programs. Smith said the funding will help the Justice Department hire more staff and build out new programs for inmates.

Despite some earlier road bumps, the Bureau of Prisons is beginning to roll out a tool meant to assess each inmate's risk of recidivism and determine the type of programs that would be best suited for them.

Some advocates say they are worried the risk assessment tool is too focused on factors that prisoners cannot change — like their arrest record — versus behaviors that could show they are trying to take a new direction in life.

"You need to look at not just that one point in time when they had their worst day, but you need to look at how they've conducted themselves, and what priorities they've put in place moving forward after they've broken the law," said David Safavian, of the American Conservative Union Foundation.

Safavian said the tool should consider a prisoner's behavior in prison and whether they are pursuing drug rehabilitation or anger management classes.

There is concern that the tool could reinforce racial biases that have continued to affect the criminal justice system in America.

Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, director of the Bureau of Prisons, told lawmakers at a hearing last week that the agency is "fine-tuning" the risk assessment tool in response to the worries.

The White House says the initial version of the tool released in July is just a start and that the administration is working to develop a tool that is fair.

"The goal is to have a system that's not going to be biased and account for socio-economic status," Smith said. "That's what we're engaging on and that's what they're working toward ... that's always been the goal."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.