Sens. Cory Booker and Mike Lee on putting aside politics to reform criminal justice

Senators put politics aside for prison reform

A pair of senators from two vastly different communities are proof that putting aside political differences for the betterment of the very people they're elected to serve can help bring about real change. Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah formed a bipartisan coalition to solve a growing problem amongst one of America's most vulnerable communities. 

"90% of the people being liberated right now are African Americans. We live in a nation where our criminal justice system is still deeply biased against low-income people, against minorities. And this was a step,"  Booker said. 

They told CBS News contributor, former Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, that the issue of skyrocketing incarceration rates hits close to home. 

"I mean there's an anguish in my community," Booker said. "There's an anguish in African American communities."

The First Step Act, signed into law by President Trump last year, reverses the harsh sentencing guidelines commonly used in the "War on Drugs" era of the 1980's and early 1990's. Booker called the issue a "cancer on the soul of our country."

The bill, however, is already producing tangible results. On Friday, the Justice Department announced the release of more than 3,000 federal inmates as a result of the new law, giving a second chance to thousands of Americans. The law is also designed to help inmates transition back into society and the largest group of released inmates thus far have been drug offenders.

Booker and Lee spent months negotiating the bipartisan legislation, putting aside their political differences to help the incarcerated. Lee told CBS that he became interested in reforming the criminal justice system "not in spite of, but because of the fact that I'm a conservative and-- a former prosecutor. As a former prosecutor, I saw a number of abuses of federal law."

Booker noted that their unlikely pairing shows that relationships do matter on Capitol Hill. 

"Sometimes they surprise you," he said. "The fact that I'm sitting next to a guy from Utah, not the most diverse state, but for him to have a sincere concern that we have more African Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves in 1850, and understand the racial dynamics here. So he and I had a real friendship. And it made for-- a good foundation."

The duo said they found an even more surprising ally in the White House to help champion the bill into law -- Mr. Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. 

"Jared was a solid ally, and-- one without whom-- we probably couldn't have gotten this passed," Lee said. 

Booker, however, recalled his doubts that providing sweeping change would just fall apart amidst a deeply divided Washington. 

"In the mix of the [Justice Brett] Kavanaugh hearings, which, you know how hardening that was along partisan lines, I still remember getting on the phone-- with Jared and he and I being at an impasse and me being, you know, angry and having my back up and ready to upend tables and the like over a provision of the bill. And Jared saying, 'Okay, well let's-- let's conference in Lindsey Graham' and this is at a moment where-- for those people on my side of the aisle were not-- not quite happy with-- Lindsey Graham, to put it mildly," he recalled. 

"I still remember Lindsey getting on the phone and being very hard at Jared, saying, 'We can't do this without Cory. We need to keep this coalition together.'"

While the new law aims to address racial disparities in the system and give judges more discretion in sentencing, advocates stress inmates need more resources to help them transition back into society.

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    Emily Tillett is the digital producer at "Face the Nation"