At the beginning of the Trump era, observers feared that any chance for a bipartisan reform of our criminal justice system was dead. But to the surprise of many, a hope for some positive change – however modest – remains.
Therefore, leaders on both sides of the aisle need to continue working together to win whatever progress is still possible. The millions of human beings who remain trapped within our dysfunctional and discriminatory justice system deserve our best efforts, even now. Before Trump’s election, hopes for real change were rising – and with good reason.
For the better part of a decade, both conservatives and liberals have increasingly embraced reforms to America’s prison and criminal justice systems. Democrats have long bemoaned the racial discrepancies that ballooned alongside the exponential rise in our prison population. Yet few recognized the GOP has actually taken the lead in passing smart justice policies that both reduced incarceration and increased public safety.
For example, then-Gov. Rick Perry closed prisons in Texas, saved upward of $3 billion and saw crime rates decline. Nathan Deal of Georgia has made criminal justice reform a pillar of his two-term governorship. Gov. John Kasich supported justice reform in Ohio, as did South Carolina’s Nikki Haley. Other Republican governors such as Matt Bevin of Kentucky and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma have also made substantial progress in recent years.
In fact, at the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions, both political parties adopted language in their platforms calling for reform of our prison and criminal justice systems – for the first time in either party’s history.
But Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, election and early actions alarmed many criminal justice reformers. Most damaging have been his appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Sessions’ swift rollback of Obama-era reform policies and the harmful rhetoric that has often stigmatized immigrants and people of color as criminals.
Partially as a result, the nationwide momentum to fix our justice system has begun to stall, even at the state and local levels. We have already begun to see some efforts to roll back recent criminal justice victories in Louisiana, Alaska and even California. Advocates have soldiered on, but hope has been fading.
That’s why I took heart when Jared Kushner – whose father served time in a federal prison – began to prioritize prison reform as one of his policy priorities at the Office of American Innovation. There seems to be a tug of war inside the Trump administration, with Kushner representing the more modern, reform-minded GOP approach.
This year, Kushner’s impact has been felt – and noticed. In January, Trump hosted a public listening session on criminal justice reform. In his State of the Union address, Trump included a line that spoke to “second chances” and redemption for people coming home from prison. Trump declared April “Second Chances Month” in continuation of a legacy President Barack Obama began in 2010. Most significantly, Trump recently issued an executive order to create the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry – to align federal government resources toward helping those returning home from prison to reintegrate successfully.
Support has also grown within the White House for a bipartisan bill that would increase prison programming, expand compassionate release and provide incentives for individuals in federal prison to transform their lives. That bill, called the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, was co-authored by New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries and Georgia Republican Doug Collins. They are joined by 16 members of Congress from both parties, who are among the most knowledgeable and respected when it comes to legislating issues concerning our criminal justice and prison systems.
There now seems to be critical mass to fast-track the bill for hearings and an eventual vote. The first committee hearing could come as early as next week.
The initial proposal, which has been improved, has both defenders and detractors.
In fact, a group of progressive organizations have opposed reforms that do not take a more comprehensive approach, including sentencing reform. They fear that if Congress passes a weak measure this session, it will have little motivation to continue to pursue other urgently needed reforms for many more years to come. Even Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, a recent convert to criminal justice reform, has called for a bolder, more comprehensive bill.
Fortunately, there may be a middle path between supporting today’s inadequate proposal – and getting nothing done at all.
After all, even under the Obama administration, progress in this area was exceedingly difficult. Yes, it is true that Obama was the first US President to visit a federal prison and sit with men inside. He led a historic clemency effort that freed nearly 2,000 people who had been languishing in federal prison for drug-related offenses. And he issued nearly a dozen executive orders to address various aspects of our prison and criminal justice system.
But even Obama was unable to get a comprehensive piece of criminal justice legislation through Congress. There was a bill on the table, and advocates (including #cut50) even helped convince House Speaker Paul Ryan to agree to put that bill up for a vote. But it ultimately never made it to the floor of either the House or the Senate.
Unfortunately, the current administration is hostile to a broad overhaul. Enemies of broad reform such as Sessions and others have successfully exerted political pressure to quash more ambitious proposals.
But they have not shut down every pathway forward. There is still some room for progress. My big heartache – on this topic and so many others – is how much common ground there is when you get people talking – and yet how little we actually do about it. Taking a small but meaningful step together now could allow us to take more steps together later.
Furthermore, with improvements including the following, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act could become a worthy step forward:
• Meaningful incentives that allow people either to shorten their prison terms or serve the remainder of their sentence in home confinement;
• Expanded eligibility so that anybody coming home from prison one day would have an opportunity to benefit from those incentives;
• Protections for women in federal prison who have gender-specific needs that have gone unaddressed for too long;
• Other common-sense modifications that have bipartisan support.
The Dream Corps’ #cut50 initiative, which I helped to create, has been at the table working to strengthen the bill. With these improvements, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act could represent real progress – even in the age of Trump. And these baby steps could actually smooth the path and whet the appetite for other smart changes, down the road.
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That’s why I intend to join other progressive leaders in fighting to strengthen the proposal, in hopes that we can come up with something that advocates across the board can support.
I do not know if these negotiations will turn out positively or if, ultimately, the legislative proposal will yield the results we seek. But I do know that in the names of the millions of people behind bars right now, all of us have a responsibility to roll up our sleeves, work hard and find out.
Note: This piece has been updated in light of more recent versions of the prison reform bill.