President Donald Trump discussed prison reform with governors and state attorneys general at his New Jersey golf club Thursday, part of an effort to increase education, vocational training and other opportunities to make it less likely that inmates will commit new offenses.
The United States has the largest prison population and the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world. The majority of inmates are held in state facilities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
White House officals said the group represents states that have implemented reforms similar to those backed by Trump. The mostly Republican group included governors from Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Dakota, as well as attorneys general from Florida and Texas.
Trump is pushing a bill that has passed the House of Representatives that would provide $250 million over five years to fund education, vocational training and rehabilitation programs within the federal prison system. Participating inmates get credits toward early release or serving the rest of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.
The prison reform bill, “Formerly Incarcerated Re-enter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act,” is also known by its acronym the First Step Act.
Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and adviser, has been working with congressional allies to move the First Step program forward.
First Step Act
Ryan Streeter, director of domestic policy studies with the American Enterprise Institute, said First Step uses “evidence-based interventions to help people get the kind of training they need, the attachment to the community they need, and the things that we’ve seen actually work in a research-based environment.”
He says there is growing congressional consensus on the need for sentencing reform, but initiatives have faced roadblocks. Streeter sees the legislation as an effort to ensure that when inmates reach the end of their sentences, they don’t end up back behind bars within five years, which is what happens with more than 75 percent of the prison population.
The First Step Act is a “back end” type of prison reform, meaning it focuses on cutting prison time once people are incarcerated. A "front end" initiative focuses on reducing the amount of people sent to prison and the amount of time they spend there by making changes in the process of arrest, prosecution and sentencing.
The bill focuses solely on the federal prison system, which is only a small part of the overall U.S. prison system. Critics say the bill does not address the main causes of mass incarceration: prison sentences that are too long, and too many incarcerated people. For example, the bill would not reduce or limit mandatory minimum sentences for minor drugs offenses.
A separate piece of legislation — a broader criminal justice reform bill co-written by senators Chuck Grassley and Richard J. Durbin — is also moving though the Senate and has received bipartisan support.
The Washington Post is reporting that administration officials are pushing for a deal that would combine the Senate bill and the First Step Act, including provisions that would allow judges to issue sentences shorter than mandatory minimums for low-level crimes.
The deal may face opposition from within Trump’s own administration, particularly from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has come out in strong opposition to any measures that would change mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.
Support from minorities
Racial disparity is a huge problem in the U.S. criminal justice system. African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites.
According to the Sentencing Project, 1 in every 10 black men in his 30s is in prison or jail on any given day.
Last week at the White House, Trump met with a group of urban pastors to discuss prison reform. Attendees said the president essentially came out in support of broad-based reforms to the criminal justice system.
Criminal justice reform
A number of polls, including one by the American Civil Liberties Union Campaign for Smart Justice, have shown that the majority of Americans support criminal justice reforms and believe the country's criminal justice system needs significant improvements.
The U.S. makes up about 5 percent of the world’s population but has 21 percent of the world’s prisoners. According to the World Prison Brief, an online database providing information on prison systems around the world, 655 people were incarcerated in the U.S. per 100,000 population in 2016.