GOP lawmakers confident on prison reform ahead of midterms


INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Republican lawmakers — boosted by support from the White House, governors and outside conservative groups — say they’re confident they will pass a criminal justice reform bill before the 2018 midterm elections.

“I think it would be a great thing if we could pass prison reform and get it to the president’s desk,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the chief vote counter for the GOP majority in the Senate, told a group of donors affiliated with billionaire conservative brothers Charles and David Koch on Saturday night.


“I’m more optimistic about that happening this year and in the next few months than I’ve ever been.”

Prison reform is a priority for the Koch network, which is holding its winter seminar in the California desert this weekend.

They’ve been working closely with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has been spearheading the effort for the administration.

“They’re fully supportive and hopefully they can use the bully pulpit to support it,” said Mark Holden, the senior vice president for Koch Industries.

Earlier this month, Holden, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) met with President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the issue at the White House.

The president said he had a “great interest” in getting prison reform done and cited the need for job training, mentoring and drug addiction treatment for former inmates returning to society.

“We want to ensure that those who enter the justice system are able to contribute to their communities after they leave prison, which is one of many very difficult subjects we’re discussing, having to do with our great country,” Trump said at the time.

“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. We have a great interest in helping them turn their lives around, get a second chance and make our community safe.”

The issue is a passion project for many of the elected officials, donors and activists that gathered at the exclusive resort in Indian Wells, where personal liberty and free-market opportunities are the core principles promoted by the network.

“We’ve created an entire subset, an entire third class of citizens in our population,” Bevin said. “There’s been so much talk about this for so long, so many people blowing smoke …but what’s actually been done has not been significant and we’ve continued to warehouse people and the warehousing of human beings is not helping our society.”

The Koch network has invested $4 million in a pilot project called Safe Streets and Second Chances, aimed at rehabilitating and assimilating recently released prisoners in an effort to reduce recidivism rates.

“When I talk to my sheriffs, that’s what they want us to do — to look at these recidivism rates and the impact it has on families and children in these families and then begin to think through the reform component,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

Lawmakers say past efforts at prison reform sank because the issue was coupled with sentencing reform. Some Republicans are wary of making changes to mandatory minimum sentencing and other sentencing guidelines.

But there is optimism that bills presently in the House and Senate, which are focused solely on making post-prison life easier and more prosperous for inmates, will attract bipartisan support.

Bevin said he’s hopeful Washington will look to reforms that have been enacted in his home state, including counseling for those dealing with drug and mental health issues, expunging records, restoring voting rights, permitting former prisoners to obtain business licenses and providing schooling and training to inmates while they’re in prison.

“We’re good at removing people but we have to rehabilitate and reassimilate them,” Bevin said. “Those are the things we’re driving for.”

Tags Donald Trump Jared Kushner Jeff Sessions John Cornyn Marsha Blackburn

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