TUPELO • Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith will not currently say whether she supports a prison reform bill that is endorsed by President Donald Trump and awaiting a vote in the Senate.
When he visited Mississippi last week to stump for Hyde-Smith in two different cities, Trump also convened a policy roundtable on the state’s Gulf Coast to discuss his support of the First Step Act, a bill with major bipartisan backing.
“It has tremendous support no matter where we go,” Trump said, according to video of the event. “Tremendous support, beyond anything I would’ve expected.”
The bill would install measures to reduce recidivism, including incentives to participate in vocational training and rehabilitation programs.
Minimum sentences imposed by federal law for certain crimes could also fall, and judges would have discretion not to hand down the minimums for some lower-risk offenders in the bill’s current form.
“What we’ll have here is communities will be safer by helping inmates gain the skills they need to obtain jobs and stay out of prison after they are released,” Trump said at the roundtable.
The president went on to call the proposal “tough on crime but also smart on crime.”
Hyde-Smith was present at the round table, seated close to the president. But even as she campaigned for election to her seat by boasting that she has voted with Trump 100 percent of the time, she is not yet willing to vocally march in lockstep with the president on criminal justice issues.
The Daily Journal submitted questions to the senator’s office, asking whether she planned to vote for the First Step Act.
In response, the senator provided a written statement.
“This is an important issue I’m very passionate about. We have to be smart about how we address it, particularly in addressing recidivism,” Hyde-Smith said. “There are still a lot of ideas being discussed at this point. I’m following the debate, and I’m committed to giving it my best efforts.”
In her comments at the presidential roundtable, Hyde-Smith did voice concerns about the nation’s recidivism rate and praised Mississippi’s drug courts.
When asked at a debate between Hyde-Smith and her opponent, Mike Espy, held before last week’s runoff election, the senator wouldn’t identify any specific criminal justice reforms she supports.
Also joining the president’s Mississippi roundtable were Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, and the head of Mississippi’s Department of Corrections, Pelicia Hall
Mississippi’s senior Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican, was also present and urged a vote on the First Step Act during December’s lame-duck session.
A different version of the First Step Act has already passed the House. The Senate added reforms that would reduce some federal sentencing minimums and large blocs of bipartisan support continue to back the legislation.
Proponents have demanded a quick vote, citing the opportunity to pass a significant bipartisan achievement, bringing together Republicans and Democrats in Congress as well as the White House.
A diverse array of interest groups have also thrown their weight behind the proposal, including the American Civil Liberties Union, a tea party-linked lobby group, the Fraternal Order of Police, and some influential evangelical Christians.
Despite significant support from highly influential figures, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been lukewarm and a few GOP figures like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas have harshly criticized the reforms.
Despite the broad support, McConnell controls the legislation that comes to the Senate floor and has showed hesitancy to advance legislation that divides his own Republican caucus.