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Trump Calls Prison Reform “Very Important” as First Step Act Passes in the House

by Christopher Zoukis

Does “tough on crime” President Donald J. Trump support prison reform? If his comments at a January 2018 listening session can be believed, the answer is a qualified “yes” – qualified because his focus is mainly on reentry services, not on prison conditions or sentencing reform.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, has spearheaded the administration’s prison reform efforts. Kushner has a personal interest in this area; his father, Charles Kushner, spent 14 months in federal prison after being convicted of accepting illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering. According to CNN, Jared Kushner has held several listening sessions involving key criminal justice stakeholders.

The January 2018 session included Kushner, Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and several prison reform experts. A roundtable discussion was held with input from everyone, including Trump, who referred to prison reform as “very important” and a “very big topic.”

“The vast majority of incarcerated individuals will be released at some point and often struggle to become self-sufficient once they exit the correctional system,” he said. “We have a great interest in helping them turn their lives around, get a second chance, and make our community safe.”

The President added, “We’ll be very tough on crime, but we will provide a ladder of opportunity to the future.”

It remains to be seen what the rungs of that ladder will look like or how far apart they will be spaced. After all, it is no secret that Attorney General Sessions opposes criminal justice reform at nearly every level, and his resistance reportedly led to the recent abrupt retirement of Bureau of Prisons director Mark Inch. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.52].

But Matt Schlapp with the American Conservative Union, one of the roundtable participants, indicated that broad bipartisan support for prison reform could lead to action under the Trump administration.

“It’s the right thing to do to take it on, and it’s also smart to take it on,” he stated. “This is one of those interesting public policy issues that is supported by people on the right and supported by people on the left, and that’s a refreshing change of pace from the policy issues that seem to fall in the gutter of one side or another.”

Governor Bevin took that sentiment a step further, telling USA Today that Trump was uniquely positioned to provide leadership on criminal justice reform, given his support for law enforcement.

“It takes someone to stop blowing smoke on it, which is what liberals have done for years,” Bevin said. “This has the ability to be something transformative, something like Nixon going to China and turning the world on its head.”

In May 2018, a bipartisan group of members of the U.S. House of Representatives expressed support for the First Step Act (H.R. 5682) to tackle prison reform. But a number of criminal justice advocates and U.S. Senators have criticized the bill as inadequate because it fails to address sentencing reform, uses algorithms to calculate custody scores that are subject to racial bias and withholds expanded good time credits from certain classes of prisoners.

With the support of conservative groups like the Charles Koch Institute and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, as well as more progressive organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Equal Justice Initiative, the bill – co-written by U.S. Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat, and Doug Collins, a Republican, in consultation with Jared Kushner – passed the House Judiciary Committee 25-5.

Later in May 2018, the bill was brought to the floor of the House where it passed 360-59 with bipartisan support. It remains stalled in the Senate.

“The new incentive system for pre-release custody credits could exacerbate racial biases and, unlike previous criminal justice efforts, is not balanced with the necessary reforms to our federal sentencing system,” said U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler.

But prison reform advocates were happy to see language in the bill that would prohibit shackling female prisoners while they are pregnant and for 12 weeks after giving birth. Another provision establishes a goal of keeping prisoners within 500 miles of their homes, in order to facilitate family visits.

“Close family ties are proven to reduce reoffending, yet many prisoners are incarcerated hundreds of miles from their spouses and children,” said Jason Pye, vice-president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, a libertarian advocacy group.

The First Step Act also includes a “good time credit fix,” increasing sentence reduction credits federal prisoners can earn through good behavior from 47 to 54 days per year. And new expanded reduction credits would be granted to prisoners who participate in certain programs, but only those at lower custody levels. Passage of the legislation would make some 4,000 federal prisoners immediately eligible for release, said Jessica Jackson-Sloan, co-founder of #cut50, a movement that seeks to reduce both the prison population and crime rates.

“We’re fully on board with this bill,” she added. “We’ll continue to fight for sentencing reform.”

“What we’re disagreeing on right now is how far can we go right now,” Rep. Collins said. “Do you want to actually make law or do you want to make press releases?”

But one of his most powerful GOP allies has begged to differ. U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who sponsored an unsuccessful 2016 sentencing reform bill, issued a statement saying sentencing reform should be a component of this legislation, too. Yet perhaps in recognition of Attorney General Sessions’ opposition to sentencing reform, Senator Grassley also signaled his willingness to consider the First Step Act.

“Maybe the House moving something, even if it doesn’t include what I want, may be the start of this – getting people to think about it,” Grassley said.

Some of his colleagues have crossed party lines to unite against the bill, with U.S. Senator Rand Paul joining Senators Cory Booker, Dick Durbin and Kamala Harris to oppose the First Step Act. The ACLU and the NAACP also oppose the bill for not going far enough – a position that may seem petulant to those uneducated in the complicated process by which major legislation passes Congress.

“There is a constant tension in legislating, where some people argue that it’s better to take half a loaf and then come back for the rest,” said Michael Steel.

A high-ranking aide to former House Speaker John Boehner, Steel said Congress “tend[s] to do big pieces of legislation on these big topics very rarely, so if you don’t get as much as you can, or you don’t get what you actually want, you may lose the opportunity to make any further progress for a decade or a generation.”

“By choosing a tepid approach, the prison bill abandons years of work and risks making it harder for Congress to advance more serious legislation in the future,” agreed Eric Holder, who served as Attorney General during the Obama administration.

Todd Cox, policy director at the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, criticized the House for passing the First Step Act with no hearings, no floor debate, no budget scoring and no analysis of the legislation’s social impact.

Senators Booker, Durbin and Harris issued a joint statement calling the bill “a step backward from our shared goal of ending America’s mass incarceration crisis.”

Whether the First Step Act is enacted during the Trump administration or not, further comprehensive prison and sentencing reform will still be needed. 


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