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Law & the Courts

The Department of Justice Is ‘Fully On Board’ With Prison Reform Proposals

Indian Wells, Calif. — Do conservatives care about prison reform?

It’s not the hottest topic in most voters’ minds. Most Americans hope to never see the inside of a jail cell, and they probably feel they’re more likely to be a victim of a crime than convicted of one. But Republican lawmakers are gradually increasing their focus on policy changes and programs that can reduce recidivism. Once a person is convicted of a crime, how can prisons try to increase the odds that the current incarceration is a convict’s final stay in the penal system?

Earlier this month, President Trump and his staff held a White House “listening session” on the issue of prison reform and preventing recidivism, featuring Governors Mark Bevin of Kentucky and Sam Brownback of Kansas. (This being the Trump administration, the event was largely lost in the shuffle of ongoing controversies, including the reports of the president using an expletive to describe certain countries in a White House meeting on immigration.)

But the president does seem to have more than “law and order” in his perspective of the criminal justice system.

“The vast majority of incarcerated individuals will be released at some point, and often struggle to become self-sufficient once they exit the correctional system,” Trump said. “We have a great interest in helping them turn their lives around, get a second chance, and make our community safe.”

Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden attended that White House event and concluded from his conversation with Jeff Sessions that the attorney general is “fully on board.”

“I had a good conversation with him at the White House,” Holden said at the winter meeting of the Koch brothers’ Seminar Network. This is significant because Sessions is generally a skeptic of the burgeoning moment for criminal justice reform in Republican circles, and he torpedoed a bipartisan effort at sentencing reform as a senator in 2016. “We’re going to meet people where they are.”

Holden can sound like an impassioned liberal when discussing prisons, or at least he advocates positions that used to be mainly associated with liberals, lamenting that there’s too much power in the hands of prosecutors, not enough lawyers for people who need them, and too much faith in mandatory minimum sentences. He contends that there’s no data proving that those laws make citizens safer.

“I think our system has miserably failed us in the past thirty to forty years,” he says. “More people have criminal records than college degrees. If you look at federal system, they’re still in the 1980s… They’re still using ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key.’ It’s failing, it’s inhumane, and it’s counter-productive.”

He points to the “Texas miracle” in prison reform, where from 2007 to 2015, the Lone Star state expanded the number of specialty courts from nine to more than 160, expanded substance abuse programs, expanded the number of halfway houses, and challenged local probation departments, offering them additional state funds if they reduced the number of probationers returning to prison by 10 percent. As then-governor Rick Perry boasted, the state shut down three prisons and six juvenile facilities, saved $2 billion from the budget, and the state’s crime rate dropped to its lowest point since 1968.

“Every state that’s done it right has been able to reduce crime and reduce incarceration rates at the same time,” Holden says.

At the White House event, Brownback said, “The biggest thing that we’ve gotten done that’s been successful have been mentoring programs, private person-to-person mentoring programs. We’ve got 7,500 matches that we’ve made. Because most people, when they come out of prisons, they don’t have many relationships that are reliable or good for them to get back on their feet. And that has cut the recidivism rate, for those 7,500, in half — from 20 to under 10 percent.”

Holden and the Koch network are hoping for a similar large-scale shift of focus in the federal prison system. This year winter meeting is heavily focused around the network’s new initiative called Safe Streets and Second Chances, designed to promote anti-recidivism programs in U.S. prisons.

The program will include a new research component using eight sites across Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, featuring a “randomized controlled trial involving more than 1,000 participants in a mix of urban and rural communities.” The research will be directed by Dr. Carrie Pettus-Davis of Washington University in St. Louis.

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