Criminal Justice

How Trump Went from Appointing Jeff Sessions to Signing the FIRST STEP Act

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin gives advice for changing hearts on criminal justice reform.


President Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, into law last December. For the average observer, Trump's support for the criminal justice overhaul was uncharacteristic. After all, he did appoint drug warrior Jeff Sessions to serve as his first attorney general.

So how did he go from surrounding himself with tough-on-crime politicians to signing a major victory for reform advocates? According to Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R), it's all due to the power of persistence.

On Wednesday, Bevin spoke alongside newly elected Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) at a criminal justice reform event in Nashville, Tennessee. The event, which was hosted by Right on Crime, covered the experimental reforms being carried out in each state. At one point in the conversation, the governors were asked about the executive branch's role in reform.

Bevin spoke about the White House meetings that eventually led to the signing of the FIRST STEP Act, during which Trump and Sessions were skeptical of reforms.

"But there was one person in that room that was passionate," he said. That person was Jared Kushner, the president's own son-in-law.

Not only is Kushner quite passionate about criminal justice reform, but he made it a priority to bring before the president. Kushner's relationship to the issue is a personal one as his father previously served time in a federal prison for tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions. Because of his own experiences, Kushner has since pushed for reforms such as improving rehabilitation behind bars and reentry programs.

Bevin said that it was Kushner's excitement on the issue that helped combat Trump's skepticism.

Prior to Bevin's answer, Lee, who himself has worked with criminal justice ministries, recalled that his own passions and newfound platform on the campaign trail helped reform become a major focus in the gubernatorial race.

"If you talk about something and you elevate the conversation from a platform that has influence, then it impacts society," Lee said.

Lee also said that such elevation was beneficial to state governments as it helped policy ideas to cross state lines.

Criminal justice reform is one of the few political fights that enjoys bipartisan support. It is also one of the few topics where the human toll of bad policy is front-and-center. Despite the progress made so far, there are just enough people in positions of power to hinder progress. At one point of the evening, Bevin mentioned that he received some of the greatest pushback from his own Republican colleagues.

While disagreements and a slow-moving government can discourage activists, the creation of a fairer criminal justice system is not impossible. After all, infectious zeal caused some of the toughest critics in the White House to take a second look at national reform.