This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on March 30, 2018.
President Trump and his senior advisor Jared Kushner have spent their lives beneath the glare of the bright lights of Manhattan, but it is the nation’s darkest and most forgotten locations that have recently peaked their interest: America’s prisons. On Feb. 28, the administration released a document entitled “Principles of Prison Reform and Reentry” that puts the administration firmly on the side of rehabilitation and redemption.
The leadership of President Trump and Kushner couldn’t be timelier given that there are nearly 650,000 Americans released from prisons every year, not to mention millions discharged from local jails. Wouldn’t we be safer if they left more prepared to hold a job and follow the law?
The Trump administration’s plan calls for sensible reforms such as creating incentives for inmates to complete programs that reduce recidivism and instituting prison work programs that train inmates to do jobs available in the economy upon release. It also highlights the importance of risk and needs assessments that match the right offender to the right program.
Some are surprised this White House is backing prison reform, but this effort has been a long time in the making. Back in October 2017, Kushner brought me and others who had been working in this field for years to the White House to engage in what turned out to be a series of discussions on solutions and strategies for achieving them.
Since then, the president and Kushner have held a series of public and private sessions at the White House with governors, academic experts, treatment providers, conservatives and liberals, and formerly incarcerated people who are now helping others coming out of prison. The White House is now well versed on the latest innovations in the field, learning firsthand from those pioneering programs such as those teaching prisoners to be software engineers and providing reentering citizens with an app to help fulfill their parole supervision and treatment obligations.
As a result, in his widely acclaimed State of the Union speech, the president issued this call to action: "As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens. 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."
Inspired by Kushner’s commitment to promoting successful reentry, we joined with the Koch Companies and Florida State University to launch Safe Streets and Second Chances, which is creating pilot programs in four states to provide a seamless transition to employment and self-sufficiency for people coming out of prison. While there are many good programs in the reentry sphere, many only begin working with clients once they are discharged. However, the research suggests that mentoring and training are most effective if they begin during incarceration and continue during the transition to society. Additionally, Safe Streets and Second Chances is designed to bring successful reentry to scale, with the goal of eventually being in all 50 states.
Meanwhile, the administration is pushing forward on the policy level, spearheading the reestablishment of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council that will assemble the leaders of all relevant federal agencies to identify opportunities for action. For example, with many agencies overseeing decaying infrastructure, could there be opportunities to break down barriers that would enable more people with criminal records to help rebuild our nation’s roads, bridges, ports, and airports?
Finally, this administration has been deeply engaged in working with members of Congress on advancing reforms to the federal prison system. It hardly seems a coincidence that after press accounts of the White House sessions on the topic, bills from 2017 began to be refiled and members of Congress began to talk openly about enacting meaningful reforms this year. While Congress is considering a broad range of reforms that have merit, it makes sense to initially prioritize legislation where a consensus exists that would allow for passage this year, such as bills that provide earned time for completing recidivism reduction programs.
The White House, working with Congress, appears to be on the verge of transforming reentry to improve public safety and move more people from prison to paycheck.