Trump and the assembled Republican lawmakers and prison reform advocates focused much of their discussion on job training and rehabilitation for prisoners, offering a conservative view of an issue that has long garnered support of Republicans and Democrats.
“The vast majority of incarcerated individuals will be released at some point and often struggle to become self-sufficient one they exit the correctional system,” Trump said. “We have a great interest in helping them turn their lives around, get a second chance and make our communities safe.”
“We want to steal good ideas from one another,” Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said during the meeting.
The White House’s prison reform effort has been spearheaded by Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, and Kushner’s Office of American Innovation. Kushner sat at the head of the table on Thursday and listened as Attorney General Jeff Sessions thanked him for his efforts.
“Jared, I appreciate your leadership on this,” Sessions said.
Tough on crime, but pro reform
The message to Trump is that you can be tough on crime but still for these reforms. He has been presented with data showing that in states that adopt reforms and reduce the prison population, crime decreases and so does recidivism.
And the push appears to be working. Trump addressed the issue at Camp David earlier this month during a meeting with top Republican lawmakers, casting it as something his White House will push this year.
Sessions, who largely opposed the Obama administration’s prison reform efforts, also attended Thursday’s meeting.
Sessions recently announced that the Justice Department would not leave states that have legalized marijuana alone, a move that one source close to the prison reform deliberations said may unwittingly galvanize conservatives to act faster on reforms based on the states’ rights argument and a desire to reduce the prison population in the US.
But the White House is looking for a political win and sees prison reform as an issue that could garner bipartisan support, even if they sell the changes as a conservative solution to reduce crime and save money.
In addition to Sessions, Thursday’s meeting included Bevin, Gov. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, and Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries, the company run by prolific Republican donors Charles and David Koch. No Democratic leaders were included in the listening session.
Koch Industries, through its non-profit political organizations, has made criminal justice reform a major push in recent years. The issue is one area that the Kochs find agreement with Democrats and Holden worked closely with the Obama administration during his push for prison reform.
But the listening session was also slated to include pro-Trump Republican operatives like Matt Schlapp, Chairman of the American Conservative Union and two Trump-aligned faith leaders, Paula White, senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center, and Darrell Scott, co-founder of the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
Kushner has been hosting listening sessions on the issue for the last few months, the official added. The White House senior adviser talked with key groups, experts and lawmakers and has been working closely with Sessions, who will attend the listening session.
Kushner, according to advocates, has been the most active White House official in the prison reform process and, to a degree, the issue is personal for the top White House aide. Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, was convicted of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering and spent 14 months in a federal prison.
The issue is the latest to be spearheaded by Trump’s son-in-law, who at the start of the Trump administration was tasked with everything from dealing with the opioid crisis, striking a deal for peace in the Middle East and working with Mexico.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, and Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced a bipartisan bill last year to reorganize the criminal justice system, the latest example of the issue bringing Republicans and Democrats together.
Obama had used his second term in office to champion the issue and became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison
. Trump’s predecessor granted clemency to over 1,900 people, including issuing 212 pardons, according to Pew Research Center. The effort — the most sweeping of any US president — primarily focused on people convicted of dealing drugs who were jailed using mandatory minimum sentencing.
Republicans, including then-Alabama Sen. Sessions, slammed the effort. Sessions called Obama’s action “an alarming abuse of the pardon power.”