Trump Calls for Second Chances in Criminal Justice Reform Push

President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Having signed into law a major criminal justice reform bill last year, President Donald Trump on Monday said his administration will shift its focus to making it easier for people to get jobs and successfully rejoin their communities after prison.

“Our bond with our fellow citizens is what stitches us together as one united nation sharing one common destiny,” Trump said in a speech at the White House. 

Trump said the administration’s goal is to cut the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people to single digits by supporting “second chance” hiring efforts for businesses and funding programs to help people in prison learn skills and get jobs after leaving.  

Trump made the comments at an event celebrating the recent passage of the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal justice reform package he signed last year, as reform advocates gathered at the White House for a prison reform summit.

He noted the budget the White House released last month calls for $234 million for the Justice Department to put in place reentry programs for people in prison, as well as an additional $78 million for employment initiatives. Trump dubbed the administration’s focus the Second Step Act, a play off of the First Step Act.

Reform advocates say that before lawmakers can take their next step, they must make sure their first one is on solid footing.

“Before taking a next step, one of the things that’s going to have to happen is they have to make sure the First Step is properly implemented,” said John Malcolm, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, in an interview with Courthouse News. 

Particular focus is on a panel that will help develop a tool to evaluate the risk that individual inmates pose of ending up back in prison. The tool will help determine what programs inmates can complete to earn time credits for early release.  

The Justice Department missed a deadline to create the panel earlier this year, in part because of the month-long government shutdown. The panel is supposed to develop the tool by July and fully implement it by January 2020.

Congress also has yet to provide money for the program.

David Safavian, deputy director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said funding the initiative is crucial to getting the reform plan off the ground.

“The challenge that we have is that this is a tough budget environment, so making sure the Department of Justice has sufficient funds to develop that tool, get that guidance out and get the full program in place has to be the first priority,” Safavian said.

Safavian said successful implementation of the First Step Act is critical not just for the interests of prisoners who can take advantage of its programs, but also to the broader future of the movement.

“If we don’t get First Step Act implemented properly this go-around, it makes it so much harder for us to do other things to reform the criminal justice system in the future,” Safavian said. “That’s why there’s this huge focus on successful implementation.”

During his speech, Trump recommitted to fully funding and implementing the First Step Act’s provisions.

“My administration intends to fully fund and implement this historic law, it’s happening and it’s happening fast,” Trump said.

Beyond implementation of the First Step Act and Trump’s suggestions, the precise focus of future criminal justice reform efforts is less clear.  Malcolm pointed to clemency efforts and programs aimed at helping prisoners reenter society after leaving prison as potential next moves.  

“Re-entry programs and clemency are not really addressed in the First Step Act and I think those may very well be things that get addressed as a next step,” Malcolm said.

Safavian also highlighted a reform effort known as “clean slate” that automates the process of wiping away criminal records for people who commit certain offenses and do not commit new crimes within a certain period of time of leaving prison.

While many people who have been convicted of crimes are eligible to have their records expunged, a relatively small portion of these people go through the sometimes complicated and costly process, hampering their job prospects and ability to ease back into their communities.

Pennsylvania adopted “clean slate” last year, with Utah doing the same last week.  

With a federal election looming, reform advocates acknowledge a sweeping policy achievement at the federal level might be unlikely.

That is why Marc Howard, founding director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University, said reformers might have to sustain themselves on victories at the state level. He also noted that while federal reforms get the most attention, only 10%vof prisoners are in the federal system, leaving a lot of room for meaningful changes.

“Really where the action is is on the state level, and that’s where I think there has been good movement in a certain number of states  over the last 5 to 10 years pretty quietly,” Howard said in an interview. “And that gives me optimism and I hope that that will continue, that that will accelerate, that that will expand to other states.”

Trump was joined on stage Monday by five people who were released from prison as a result of the First Step Act, all of whom spoke and thanked him for signing the bill.

Troy Powell, who was able to find a job after spending 16 years in prison on a crack cocaine conviction, said while he is grateful for the First Step Act, lawmakers must continue to press for people who cannot take advantage of the law’s reforms.

“I left so many people behind in prison doing 40 and 50 years for nothing, I mean absolutely nothing” Powell said. “I mean, should I have gone to prison? Absolutely, I committed the crime. But for 20 years for the small things that I’ve done? I should have definitely gone to prison. I don’t know what to say, I think there should be a second step.”

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