Prison reform gains new momentum under Trump
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.
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 Collins (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 Cornyn (R-Texas) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (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 Trump and Jared Kushner, 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 Sessions’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.”