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'American carnage' President presides over prison reform push

Following building momentum on Capitol Hill and backing from advocates left and right, a nod from President Donald Tr...

Posted: Feb 2, 2018 12:42 PM
Updated: Feb 2, 2018 12:42 PM

Following building momentum on Capitol Hill and backing from advocates left and right, a nod from President Donald Trump has lifted the expectation that prison reform legislation could pass this year.

Criminal justice reform has picked up increased support and attention over the past decade, with members of both parties signaling their belief in doing something about the state of mass incarceration in the US. But Trump's election, predicated in part on hardline law enforcement and false claims about the level of violent crime, seemed to spell a pause, if not an end, for those efforts.

While the discussion around sentencing and comprehensive criminal justice reform retains sharp disagreement between and within the parties, there appears to be a consensus on this topic.

Supporters of the push are expressing something between confidence and cautious optimism that a deal to improve conditions in federal prisons, bolster anti-recidivism efforts and allow federal prisoners to earn "time credits" for making it through education or other programs is doable as major clashes over immigration and the Justice Department seize the relevant committees' attention and the midterm elections grow closer.

Georgia's Republican Rep. Doug Collins, an author of a bipartisan prison reform bill, called the moment of apparent consensus "a unique opportunity."

State of the Union

Tucked into Trump's first State of the Union address Tuesday, a year after warning about "American carnage" and moments before announcing a return to previous policy on the Guantanamo Bay prison, was a line on extending opportunity "to all citizens."

"This year, we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance." Trump said.

Trump delivered the line after an effort on the issue by his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, led to a White House listening session last month with the President, attended by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, said the line was a boost to efforts to pass reform and that it was significant, not lip service.

"You don't include it in the State of the Union if it isn't a priority," Harris said.

Trump brought up the topic again on Thursday in a speech before GOP members of Congress during their retreat in West Virginia.

"We can reform our prison system to help those who have served their time get a second chance at life," Trump said.

He continued to say he had looked into the issue, and that while he felt some prisoners are "very bad," many are good, and upon release from prison have a hard time getting jobs, which led him to tout the strength of the economy.

"The economy is just booming," Trump said. "I mean that fixes it better than any program we can do, anything we can do at all. But the economy is so strong now and so good and so many companies are moving in, that I really believe that that problem -- it's a big problem -- is going to solve itself, but we're working on it."

'Art of the possible'

Trump's endorsement of prison reform would come in contrast to his general tenor and hardline policies around crime, and as Sessions rolls back Obama-era policies, including his direction for prosecutors to seek tougher sentences, and ground is laid for a potential increase in the Justice Department's reliance on private prisons.

Collins said he's spoken with Sessions and others in the administration and that the attorney general is "on board" with their approach to reshaping federal prisons, which house about 10% of the nation's prison population, larger than any one state's total.

Collins said there is a consensus that Congress should tackle prison reform before moving on to thornier debates over issues like sentencing reform, and he expects a markup at least within "the next couple months."

"The art of the possible is something that we're, that I'm, very much focused on," he said. "At the end of the day, it helps people. It moves us forward."

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