White House Summit Pushes for Action on the “First Step” Act

Judges gavel and law books Trump White House administration meets to discuss making the nation’s prisons more effective in deterring inmates from further crimes and easing their return to mainstream society.

By Christopher Zoukis

On May 18, the topic of the moment for half the day at the Trump White House was not meeting with Asian dictators or special prosecutors, but making the nation’s prisons more effective in deterring inmates from further crimes and easing their return to mainstream society.

At the half-day session, the President spoke briefly on his desire to see prison reform legislation enacted in this Congress. To an audience including the heads of six Cabinet agencies, several governors and state attorneys-general, and a diverse assortment of activists, Trump called on Congress to “send a bill to my desk,” saying he would sign it. The meeting, billed as a White House summit on prison reform, was meant to be a forum for drumming up support for the First Step Act (H.R. 5682), approved by the House Judiciary Committee on a 25-5 vote on May 8.

Earlier in the day, Vice President Mike Pence decried the nation’s current prison system for failing too often to improve the lives of those incarcerated, and thus making communities more dangerous when unrehabilitated inmates are released.

One panel that day was led by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, who while governor of Texas presided over that state’s prison reform program, which served as a model for prison reform bills introduced in Congress. A panel on issues affecting female prisoners was led by Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin, who recently signed into law a package of nine criminal justice reform laws.

Another panel at the White House summit was chaired by ex-Obama advisor and current CNN commentator and prison reform activist Van Jones, not ordinarily a Trump administration supporter, who described himself as “on the left side of Pluto.” Jones nevertheless called for passing the First Step Act, saying the way to maximize progress was to get the White House and Republicans “to engage on this issue at all,” and predicted passage of the First Step Act “leads to more reform.” (See “House Easily Clears First Step Prison Reform Act, but Will Senate?” at prisonerresource.com for more information).

The same day, the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) released a report, “Returns on Investments in Recidivism-reducing Programs,” which assessed the likely economic impact of mental health, substance abuse and educational programs that can be implemented at correctional facilities.

According to CEA’s estimates, substance abuse and mental health programs save taxpayers the most money, anywhere between $1.47 and $5.27 per dollar spent, depending on the mix of programs, which vary substantially in cost and effectiveness. Last year, the federal government budget for federal prisons was about $7.2 billion. The First Step bill would authorize $50 million annually for five years on the new anti-recidivism reforms it creates.

Jared Kushner, both a son-in-law and a senior advisor to the president, described the president as “all in” to press for action of prison reform, which he says has broader support than sentencing reform proposals.

One widely noted no-show at the White House summit was rapper Meek Mill, recently released on bond from prison. The entertainer was originally scheduled to take part in the White House meeting, but changed his mind, after reportedly talking to rap performer and media mogul Sean “Jay-Z” Carter (who’s producing a series on prison reform with Meek Mill).

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.