Criminal Justice

White House Touts Prison Reforms But Throws Cold Water on Sentencing Bill

And throws a bipartisan sentencing reform bill under the bus.


Sipa USA/Newscom

The White House has sent a list to Congress of its guiding principles for reforming the federal prison system and expanding reentry programs for inmates, the Associated Press reported Tuesday, but it declined to support a bipartisan bill that would overhauling federal sentencing guidelines.

In his State of the Union speech in January, Donald Trump said the White House would press for some reforms to the federal Bureau of Prisons and reentry programs that help inmates transition back into society.

"As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens," Trump said. "That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance."

The Washington Times reported that the principles include, among others, expanding access to prison work programs, encouraging public-private partnerships that assist inmates both pre- and post-release, and prioritizing funding for federal programs with a proven track record of reducing recidivism in state prisons.

Criminal justice groups across the political spectrum have championed prison and reentry reform, including evangelical Christian organizations and business groups. Although Trump's presidential campaign was thick with tough-on-crime rhetoric, advocates found an influential ally in Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House adviser.

Kushner has been meeting with state officials, members of congress, and advocacy groups over the past year to discuss possible reforms to the federal prison system and ways to improve reentry programs and job prospects for former inmates. Last month, the White House also hosted a roundtable discussion on prison reform.

Absent from these discussion, however, have been any potential changes to federal sentencing guidelines, a bugaboo for law-and-order Republicans, most notably Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has been working to pass a bipartisan sentencing reform bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, for the past several years. The bill would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines while eliminating none and adding several new ones. Nevertheless, it is considered by criminal justice reform advocates to be the best shot at passing major legislation on the issue in more than a decade.

The legislation passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee by a bipartisan vote last month, despite Sessions sending a letter to the committee urging it to vote the bill down. The bill is now waiting to be scheduled for a floor vote in the Senate, but the White House appears to have little to no interest in throwing its weight behind it.

"The sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done," a White House official told reporters on a conference call, according to Reuters. "By doing this in smaller bits and pushing prison reform now, this has a better chance of getting done."

Speaking to Iowa reporters Wednesday, Grassley fired back: "This would be a bipartisan policy win for the Administration, and it seems like a no-brainer to me that we should get this done and the president would be backing it."

Instead, the administration is focusing on the so-called "back end" of the criminal justice system, arguing that improving education and job opportunities for soon-to-be released inmates will give them a better shot at being productive members of society and reduce the risk of them ending up back in prison.

Conservatives have been emboldened by prison reform experiments in red states such as Texas and Georgia, where Republican officials now boast of lower prison populations, lower crime, and big savings to taxpayers.

The White House guidelines "give broad-stroke best practices to signal to Congress what this administration is willing to do," says Derek Cohen, director of Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice group that participated in several of the White House meetings.

There are currently two major bipartisan bills in Congress that would address the federal Bureau of Prisons and reentry programs.

In the Senate, John Cornyn (R-Tx.) has introduced the CORRECTIONS Act with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). The bill would expand the ability of federal inmates to earn credits toward time in pre-release custody, as well as require the Bureau of Prisons to provide reentry and anti-recidivism programs to all inmates, among other provisions.

Meanwhile in the House, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) has introduced the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, which would also expand risk and needs assessments for inmates in federal prisons.

"For effective reform, you basically need everybody on board between the executive and Congress, and I think you're actually seeing that," Cohen says. "The bills vary in some significant ways, but where they overlap, you see the principles that the White House listed. If anything, I'm very optimistic about the future of this legislation and this effort more generally."

Democrats and progressive advocacy groups are less optimistic. Speaking at a forum on criminal justice hosted by The Atlantic on Wednesday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a Judiciary Committee member who voted in favor of the Sentencing Reform in Corrections Act, said "the landscape looks horrible to me, and we don't see an appetite for making these kind of changes."

But for conservative criminal justice reformers, having the high-profile support of the Trump White House on an issue like helping inmates get a second shot is reason enough to feel good.

Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and another participant in the White House discussions, said in a statement the administration guidelines "will ensure that reforms to our system increase public safety, improve our communities, and strengthen families by creating second chances for individuals who want to become productive members of society."

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  1. Hasn’t congress learned about Trump yet? Pass a bill on sentencing reform and then just send it to Trump to sign.

    Trump is too busy trolling gun grabbers on this gun control to back-and-forth sentencing reform.

    1. I agree, I sincerely doubt Trump would veto much of anything. He loves signing his name.

      I am kind of amazed he isn’t supporting Grassley on this, as much as Grassley seems to looking out for Trump.

      1. Agreed. I don’t see Trump vetoing a bipartisan bill. He’s not an ideologue on this issue.

        1. Hmm. Guess I should have read this before commenting.

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  2. You really have to burn down the forest and sift the ashes to work out what the “thinking” is on crime and punishment at the moment. Obama was overwhelmed with the conviction that most people of color in prison on drug convictions had very little violence in their history. No, drugs are a substance, that usually have to be traded more or less in public. It is relatively easy to catch people in the act.

    Violence is an action, which can be public or private, often done very quickly, and often very hard to prove. Possession of tools of violence, like stolen weapons, were extremely often disregarded as separate crimes or bargained away by race-conscious prosecutors. even before PROMISE came along. Too much hassle.

    So in Obama’s mythical world, prisons are full of folks who attended one party where crack was smoked while the cops were ignoring white stockbrokers out in the suburbs doing worse drugs. Obama’s solution–open the cell doors and let them all out, an analog of the borders policy of open the gates and let them all in.

    1. Now, ancient history. I grew up in a tiny town that was the home of Montana’s Territorial Prison. In the 1890’s it averaged a little less than 500 inmates. These men were not idle. Only a few dozen were behind bars all day in the summer. The rest were on the large prison ranch and farm, the busy prison brick works, or the wide ranging prison road crews and the specialty well-digging crews.

      Most “nasty” killers were hanged within months, but there were old timer murderers that for whatever reason society thought some deserved life sentences. These men often were the servants in the warden’s mansion. By 1912 the inmates finished the “modern” brick and granite prison with flush toilets in every cell, electric lights, steam heat, tall walls and imposing crenelated towers. Took them 18 mos making all the bricks.

      There was also a prison baseball team with special striped uniforms and a band to accompany them on road games.

      The idea of the leisure inmate was not accepted in Montana until the Great Depression, when actually it was the hard times and competition for work that ended the long era of rehabilitation via labor.

      1. And by the way, the prisoners up until the 1970’s ate really well because they had their own butcher shop (yes, they were trusted with knives) bakery, dairy, seasonal vegetables, and did their own canning. They had fresh meat with every meal, fresh milk, fresh eggs, and bread out of the oven that morning.

        By the 1980’s the correctional institutions that had their own agriculture and food processing systems were shutting down all over the USA, The farm land had become too valuable and was being sold off to developers. The inmates were becoming too unaccustomed to labor in general, drugs were getting into institutions, discipline systems were really being eroded away to nothing by social changes and bad laws.

        The prison diet today is budgeted at about $.93 per meal and boy, is it awful. Designed by dieticians and accountants that hate humanity. Want to see a prison riot, just ban the junk food that most inmates really live on with the money their families put on their books.

        1. Another tidbit: rarely chains on Montana prison work details. Too inefficient. Guards carried shotguns but it was assumed a determined escapee would slip away. The duty of the guard was to know the inmate, who would invariably go back to his people and be found there. The rest of America was not the Hollywood trope of the chain gangs of the Deep South.

          I over-sold the idea that prison labor for hire ended in the 1930’s. Labor shortages during World War II brought it roaring back. As late as the 1950’s not only were prison crews working unchained all over the state on highways, fighting fires, etc. but the state mental hospital had crews of able-bodied men out as well who needed a little help in daily living. This was before liberal society invented large scale homelessness.

  3. Need to emphasize again that the inmates did ALL the work building the modern prison of 1912–all the electrical, all the plumbing, all the stonecutting and masonry. The state bought the new fangled Johnson cell block door system from a company in Chicago and the inmates installed that, and the glazing. Also the boiler and the steam radiators. The sole outside private worker on the prison project was the architect.

    Further, for fifty years the Montana prison operated without any subsidy whatsoever from the legislature. It was entirely self-supporting. Contrary to popular Hollywood cultural memes, it was not particularly a more brutal system in the earlier years than today, nor were the guards knuckle dragging goons. The bloodiest riots happened when lax administration let small cadres of hardened long-term inmates acquire too much control over sensitive areas.

    1. Learning by doing. Job skills when released. Rehabilitation through work ethic

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