Republicans in Congress are at a near complete standstill, but one unlikely issue is making its way to a vote: prison reform.
The House Judiciary Committee is voting on their prison reform bill — the First Step Act — Wednesday, which would allow $50 million a year in funding for prison programming and release around 4,000 inmates by changing the way good-behavior time is calculated. It's expected to pass and move to the full House. President Donald Trump, likely looking for a legislative win, will then have to choose whether to side with his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a champion of the bill, or his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who passionately opposes it.
“I think it would be a real abandonment by the White House of a significant priority if they were to side with Sessions,” said former U.S. Attorney and criminal justice reform advocate Brett Tolman. “Sessions wants nothing more than the whole thing to be killed.”
“Sessions wants nothing more than the whole thing to be killed.”
The bill would expand phone and visitation time for families of inmates, ban the practice of shackling pregnant women during childbirth, require that inmates get assigned to prisons within 500 miles of their homes, and allow for early release for medium- and high-risk inmates who complete recidivism-reduction programs. The bill allocates $50 million in funding for job and education programs, but it doesn’t guarantee those funds will be appropriated.
The House Judiciary Committee originally planned to consider the bill last month, but delayed because of disagreements between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans wanted to add an extra punishment for inmates who expose themselves to guards and restrict the time credit to inmates convicted of certain kinds of crimes. Both sides battled out their differences in closed door meetings over the past few weeks, and have emerged with the new language. The two-year punishment is out, and some of the restrictions remain.
“By implementing initiatives focused on rehabilitating individual men and women, we can promote human dignity in and beyond our prison system,” said Republican Congressman Doug Collins of Georgia in a statement. “This bill would reunite families, create skilled workers, make our streets safer and promote the wellbeing of people who will eventually rejoin society.”
Kushner, who has been leading White House talks with lawmakers on this issue, penned an op ed in the Wall Street Journal last month urging Congress to support the bill. “President Trump promised to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country — and that includes those in prison,” he said.
The House bill pits Kushner and House Republicans against Sessions, who repeatedly voted against criminal justice reform when he was a senator.
“The good time fix, that’s something that the DOJ does not favor, they oppose it,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide. “I can already tell you they’re pissed.” The Justice Department declined to comment on the bill.
Oddly, another powerful voice on the Right is pushing for even further reforms and doesn’t want to settle for the House bill — what the Democratic aide called “piecemeal reform.” Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the bill won’t make it through the Senate unless it reverses mandatory minimum sentencing — binding punishments tied to drug quantities enacted by Congress in the 1980s largely to blame for the boom in the U.S. federal prison population.
“Sen. Grassley is encouraged by current house efforts to advance criminal justice reform,” Grassley’s press secretary Taylor Foy said in an email Tuesday. “But for any criminal justice reform proposal to advance in the Senate it must also include needed sentencing reforms.”
Meanwhile, in stark contrast to Kushner’s reform efforts, the Bureau of Prisons has cut around 6,000 staff positions at prisons across the country since Trump took office, severely shrinking education and job programs for inmates. The union representing 36,000 federal workers at 122 prisons across the country does not support the House bill, the union’s legislative representative confirmed to VICE News Tuesday.
Paula Chavez, a teacher at the federal prison in Big Springs, Texas, said she hasn’t been in the classroom for nearly a month because she has been assigned to work guard duty in a staff switch up called “augmentation,” used more frequently due to BOP staff cuts.
“Law enforcement friendly, my ass,” she said about the bill. “You can fund programming all day long, but until you give us the bodies to do it nothing is going to happen.”
Cover image: White House senior adviser Jared Kushner attends an event with first lady Melania Trump where she announced her initiatives in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, May 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)