COLUMBIA, S.C. — Calling it the "most significant criminal justice reform in many generations," President Donald Trump revisited a signature bipartisan legislative achievement Friday at a South Carolina conference that will include weekend appearances from some of his Democratic presidential challengers.
Trump said faith leaders, law enforcement and others formed a historic coalition to get the bill passed. He signed it into law last December.
"We had them so liberal you wouldn't believe it and so conservative you wouldn't believe it," Trump said during remarks at a criminal justice conference held at historically black Benedict College.
The speech gave Trump a chance to highlight administration efforts to reduce the federal prison population and boost rehabilitation efforts.
Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls will speak at the weekend forum in the key primary state. It's a chance to connect with black voters who view sentencing laws for drugs and other nonviolent offenses as disproportionately harsh toward minorities.
Trump had the stage to himself Friday. The event's organizer, the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, was presenting Trump with an award for his work on criminal justice reform.
South Carolina will likely be in the Republican president's win column in November 2020, but the state plays a critical role in determining who will serve as the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.
Some state Democrats objected to the scant number of students who were admitted to Friday's event. The audience included mostly Trump supporters.
"Let's not sugarcoat it. The fact is, he is coming to this college today to create an appearance that people of color support his campaign," said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson.
Some of those Trump invited to the stage to speak are African Americans who were released from prison under the new law. Tanesha Bannister, a South Carolina native, said she was freed in May under the First Step Act and told the president she would be serving five more years in prison if not for his work.
"I want to thank the president for giving me another lease on life," Bannister said.
Trump told the audience that Democratic policies have let African Americans down and taken them for granted. He said part of his agenda is to lift up forgotten Americans.
"My goal has been to give a voice to the voiceless," Trump said.
Passage of the First Step Act gave judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and strengthened prisoner rehabilitation efforts.
The bill was supported by a unique mix of conservative and liberal groups. They argued that harsh sentences for drug crimes had filled the nation's prisons with nonviolent offenders who languished for years without the kind of training and support they would need to sustain them once they reentered society.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported to Congress last week that reduced sentences called for in the bill have led to the release of about 1,500 inmates so far and that other changes allowed more than 3,000 additional inmates to be released in July.
While that represents a small percentage of the nation's nearly 177,000 federal inmates, the legislation was not an easy sell.
Social conservatives helped woo Trump while his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, worked with Republicans and Democrats to forge compromises that the president and some law enforcement groups could accept.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.