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Prison reform gains new momentum under Trump

Prison reform gains new momentum under Trump
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Momentum is building under the Trump administration for criminal justice reform.

The path forward, however, is looking a little different than it has in the past.

Previous efforts to reform the justice system have focused on cutting prison time for convicted felons. But those taking part in the current discussions say the focus has shifted to preventing ex-convicts from returning to jail, suggesting this approach has the best chance of winning approval from both Congress and the White House.

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A source familiar with the talks between the White House and GOP members of Congress said a bipartisan prison-reform bill offered by Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsAs Kanye goes to the White House, both sides credit Kushner for prison reform House Republicans confident there won't be a government shutdown Lawmakers move to award posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to Aretha Franklin MORE (R-Ga.) is expected to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee before the first quarter ends in April.

The Prison Reform and Redemption Act, co-sponsored by eight Democrats and seven Republicans, allows prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement. To do so, prisoners have to complete evidence-based programs while in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates.

The legislation directs the attorney general to identify the most effective programs, which could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment.

Former bank robber and jailhouse lawyer Shon Hopwood said he met men behind bars who had never opened a bank account before.

“Everyone needs incentives, especially someone in prison,” he said.

Hopwood, who is now an associate professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said the cost of prison programming is a fraction of what’s spent on reprosecuting and incarcerating someone.

“Even if you are going to be tough on crime, which I disagree with, as long as people are going to be released, why don’t we help them and give them job training and life skills so when they get out they aren’t committing new offenses,” he said.

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke debate showdown Live coverage: Cruz faces O'Rourke in Texas debate showdown Trump, Feinstein feud intensifies over appeals court nominees MORE (R-Texas) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate along with Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSenate Dems ask Trump to disclose financial ties to Saudi Arabia Democrats won’t let Kavanaugh debate die Senate poised to confirm Kavanaugh after bitter fight MORE (D-R.I.).

Collins and Cornyn are working closely together to ensure any differences between their bills are reconciled, the source familiar with talks said.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorker: US must determine responsibility in Saudi journalist's death Five takeaways from testy Heller-Rosen debate in Nevada Dem senator calls for US action after 'preposterous' Saudi explanation MORE and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerSaudis say journalist killed in ‘fight’ at consulate; 18 detained White House responds to Joaquin Castro's Kushner allegations: 'an outrageous slanderous lie' Attacks on public figures are growing MORE, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, have met with lawmakers and advocates to talk about prison reform and the success states have had in the last few months, signaling there’s White House support for legislation.

“The administration strongly believes that prison reform is a conservative issue that will help reduce crime and save taxpayer dollars and has the potential to gain bipartisan support,” a White House source said.

Bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts until now have largely focused on proposals to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing for certain nonviolent drug offenders and armed career criminals.

While talks now appear focused on prison reform, advocates say sentencing reform isn’t off the table just yet.

Brooke Rollins, president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which started the national Right on Crime campaign, said there’s more divisiveness around sentencing reform.

“My best educated guess is that at some point that will become part of the discussion, but right now there is an encouraging [group] coalescing around prison reform.”

Rollins notes that criminal justice reform is a big issue and commended the administration for tackling it one piece at a time.

“When trying to get it done all at once, you often end up with nothing,” she said. “I think this administration is smart to focus on prison reform for now.”

Trump said in remarks before a meeting with conservative advocates and Republican governors from Kentucky and Kansas earlier this month that his administration is “committed to helping former inmates become productive, law-abiding members of society.”

“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.”

But more liberal advocates are less optimistic about criminal justice reform under Trump, given Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsBeto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' Rosenstein to appear for House interview next week Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure MORE’s tough-on-crime approach.

“Sessions has been very aggressive in policies at DOJ, promoting tougher, longer sentences, bringing serious charges against folks, reintroducing contracts with private prisons and prioritizing immigration offenses, which are mostly nonviolent,” said Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at The Sentencing Project.

“It’s hard to know where this conversation leads. I hope the president is genuine in his commitment to at least reentry.”