Trump promises to sign prison reform bill that could free thousands

The bill, which could immediately release 4,000 federal prisoners, is likely to be brought up for a vote early next week

Donald Trump speaking at an event on prison reform at the White House on 18 May. He called prison reform an issue ‘that unites people from across the spectrum’.
Donald Trump speaking at an event on prison reform at the White House on Friday. He called prison reform an issue ‘that unites people from across the spectrum’. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Donald Trump on Friday promised to sign bipartisan prison reform legislation currently working its way through Congress that could free thousands of prisoners.

“My administration strongly supports these efforts and I urge the House and Senate to get together … work out their differences [and] get a bill to my desk. I will sign it,” Trump said at an event the White House described as a prison reform summit.

Trump called prison reform an issue “that unites people from across the spectrum”, as he thanked progressive commentator Van Jones and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner for their involvement in pushing for the bill.

The package, which would immediately release 4,000 federal prisoners according to some advocates, passed the House judiciary committee last week and is likely to be brought up for a vote early next week. The bill would also expand compassionate release, giving elderly and terminally ill inmates a path home, and invest tens of millions in re-entry programs. It would also end the shackling of women giving birth behind bars and provide them with necessary hygiene items at no charge.

Trump did not address the majority of the bill’s provisions in his remarks, focusing mostly on the elements that deal with recidivism and re-entry.

“Nobody wins when former prisoners fail to adjust to life outside or worse, end up back behind bars,” Trump said. “We want former inmates to find a path to success so they can support their families and support their communities.”

Even if it passes in the House, the bill faces an uphill climb in the Senate, not because there isn’t support for it, but because key lawmakers feel the bill does not go far enough. Unlike prior attempts at federal reform legislation which also would have relaxed criminal sentencing, especially on drug crimes, the current bill only deals with policies that affect people who are already incarcerated.

“For any criminal justice reform proposal to win approval in the Senate, it must include … sentencing reforms,” the Republican judiciary committee chairman, Chuck Grassley, said in a statement last week. Grassley was one of the chief animating forces behind a much more comprehensive bill that had been building momentum on both sides of the aisle in 2016 but that essentially disappeared from view after Trump’s surprise victory.

But advocates like Jessica Jackson-Sloan, the policy director for #cut50, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, are hoping to get lawmakers to see the bill, called the First Step Act, as just that.

“Am I disappointed we can’t solve all our problems in one bill, of course,” Jackson-Sloan told the Guardian. “But the fact that we are able to introduce a bipartisan piece of criminal justice legislation at this point in 2018 under these political circumstances is a huge thing that should be celebrated. It is progress and it is the first step.”

Kushner, who was tasked with criminal justice reform early on in the administration, also championed the appeal of incremental reform. He noted that for years the two reform issues – sentencing and prison – have been bound together and nothing has been passed. “The reason why this thing was stuck is because of sentencing reform, so we as an administration said let’s focus on prison reform,” Kushner said. “Over time that might help the people who are arguing for sentencing reform.”

Reform advocates like Andrea James are not convinced. James is the founder and executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women, and she said her organization could not support the bill as currently written because it did not assist a large enough segment of the federal prison population.

“Anytime we make a decision to oppose anything that could potentially bring even one of our sisters out of confinement in the federal prison system, that decision is incredibly difficult,” James said.

She worries that restrictions on which prisoners can receive the credits that qualify them for early release leave too many people out. Conspiracy, firearm possession during a drug crime, and even computer fraud, are some of the convictions that could disqualify an inmate.

She also expressed doubt around execution, even for the provisions she supports, given that the justice department would be responsible for seeing it through. “We don’t trust that a Jeff Sessions justice department is going to actually implement what is being suggested in this bill,” James said.