White House Pledges Hard Work on First Step Act

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Ferguson Solidarity protest in DC, 2012. Photo by Johnny Silvercloud via Flickr

Reassuring skeptics, the Trump administration has vowed to devote considerable resources over the next year to put into effect the First Step Act, the bill signed by the president in December to overhaul the federal prison and sentencing system.

The pledge was made Thursday by Ja’Ron Smith of the White House’s Office of American Innovation at the inaugural “leadership summit” of the Council on Criminal Justice, a new national organization devoted to studying problems in the criminal justice system.

Smith said that the new law is being “fully funded” by Congress, and the Justice Department is committed to carrying out its many provisions, which should include earlier-than-expected releases of federal prisoners and efforts to help them reenter society successfully.

Some critics initially doubted the level of support for the law from the Justice Department, because Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump’s first Attorney General, was not enthusiastic about the measure, and the administration’s initial budget proposal to Congress did not include the full amount authorized on Capitol Hill.

At Thursday’s session in Washington, D.C., Smith noted that several Republican governors were strong supporters of the First Step Act, including former Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi and Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, who spoke later on Thursday.

Much of the work in the next year to implement the First Step Act will involve helping released prisoners find jobs and housing, Smith said, adding that “we will give inmates individual attention.”

He pointed out that the federal Office of Management and Budget website is explaining to returning former inmates how they can apply for federal government work.

Earlier on Thursday, Council on Criminal Justice Board Chair Laurie Robinson said that now is a “significant moment to make a clear statement that criminal justice is a top-tier issue central to our democracy.”

Robinson, a faculty member at Virginia’s George Mason University and former Assistant Attorney General in charge of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs, called for more “national leadership” to promote “fact-based credible solutions” to criminal justice problems.

Adam Gelb, the new council’s president and chief executive officer, said there is now “broad agreement across the political spectrum” that many things that can be done to improve the justice system, which the council says “is not producing enough safety or justice.”

Its mission statement declares that, “Taxpayers now spend a quarter trillion dollars per year to arrest, try, sentence, and supervise the seven million American adults behind bars or on probation and parole, yet return-to-prison rates remain high.”

Thursday’s opening session was co-sponsored by Arnold Ventures, which is sponsoring a major program in five areas of criminal justice reform.

Jeremy Travis, Arnold’s executive vice president of criminal justice and former president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, emphasized the search for “big ideas” to reform the justice system, which he said “has not served us well” over recent decades.

Travis invoked the memory of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who died shortly before the council summit, who had expressed the hope that the U.S. could return to the “democracy that we want and that we should be passing on to our children so that they can do better than what we did.”

Much of the summit was devoted to panel discussions on how criminal justice reforms can be achieved in an era of intense partisanship and polarization.

A persistent theme was that although the nation’s crime rates have declined in recent years, that did not occur because of harsh sentencing measures that increased the prison population but did not succeed in stemming high rates of recidivism.

Former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, co-chair of the council’s Board of Trustees, observed that Congress had enacted tough mandatory minimum sentences aimed at drug kingpins that ended up ensnaring lesser figures in drug trafficking to serve long terms behind bars.

Another recurrent theme of the summit was the emergence of bipartisan agreements on many criminal justice issues after many years of disagreement in which Republicans would seek long prison terms for offenders and Democrats would focus on rehabilitation programs that were viewed as “soft on crime.”

Speakers discussed the passage of not only the federal First Step Law but also justice reform measures in many states, including Georgia, South Carolina, Alaska and Utah.

State Sen. Gerald Malloy of South Carolina, a member of the council’s board, described how his state had managed to close seven prisons through a series of reform measures.

In a closing panel, Kentucky Gov. Bevin, a Republican former businessman who has made criminal justice a priority issue, called on fellow politicians to stop basing criminal justice policies on what they believe will be popular re-election issues.

“For generations, we’ve been doing the same thing, and it’s not going well,” said Bevin, who noted that he had taken the time to attend the leadership summit even though he faces his own re-election vote on Nov. 5.

Bevin complained that U.S. policymakers have “spent billions of dollars trying to put broken people back together” by using things like imprisonment and foster care as remedies for the crime problem. He urged a focus on repairing the foster care system, noting that 70 percent of prison and jail inmates had spent time in foster care.

The council’s first priority is to make recommendations on how to improve federal policies on criminal justice.

About 200 attendees on Thursday devoted their lunch hour to offering critiques of proposals drafted by council leaders on potential changes in federal prison, sentencing and inmate reentry practices.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.

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