For Criminal Justice Reform, Trump Administration Looks to Texas

by | April 16, 2018

By Andrea Drusch

Failed efforts to reform the federal criminal justice system are getting a second look in Washington _ after the White House saw how much money Texas and other states saved overhauling prisons.

President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to be tough on crime, and rejected Congress' sweeping reform plans that drew support from both parties.

But after months of behind-the-scenes lobbying from Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner _ an effort that leaned hard on data and experts from Texas _ Trump has come around to some of their ideas.

The White House says the president now supports prison reforms like those Texas implemented more than a decade ago, which since saved the state more than $3 billion and has resulted in the closure of prisons and a drastic reduction in the crime rate. South Carolina has implemented similar changes and saved nearly $500 million.

"Texas has driven this revolution _ showing that you can reduce incarceration rates safely, while reducing crime rates and saving money," said Mark Holden, general counsel for the conservative Koch network, which lobbies hard for broad criminal justice reforms.

"That was explained to the people in (the White House), including the president, and I think that got everyone's attention," said Holden, who attended White House meetings on the issue.

Lawmakers in Washington will now begin work on a proposal pared down to the reforms the president likes. Kushner, whose own father was once incarcerated in federal prison, has coordinated those efforts.

Kushner spent months working with Holden, former Texas Public Policy Foundation President Brooke Rollins, Dallas investor Doug Deason, and governors from states that implemented reforms to identify successful ideas from the state level.

They collectively presented those ideas to Trump at a White House meeting in January. The following month, the White House asked lawmakers to draw up legislation, highlighting many of the same policies.

Texas, for example, invested in helping prisoners prepare for and find jobs after their release, reducing the likelihood they would be arrested again and put back into the system.

"The president is supportive of state efforts to reform our prisons with the purpose of helping former inmates who have served their time get a second chance," said Helen Aguirre Ferre, White House director of media affairs.

She said many governors "who have met with administration officials indicate that prison reform has helped reduce recidivism and improved policies that help re-enter society while also providing the reforms needed to their systems of criminal justice."

Kushner has since worked with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a longtime criminal justice reform advocate who crafted the plan the House will begin debating this month.

It pulls directly from successful Texas programs, including prisoner rehabilitation programs, risk profiling initiatives and community partnerships.

Texas paired with a number of faith-based groups in the state, including ROD Ministries in Dallas, to provide support after prisoners are released. The state also began placing inmates it deemed less likely to commit future crimes into less restrictive prison conditions.

The proposal, though, leaves out changes to criminal sentencing, something Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions took issue with in earlier efforts.

Cornyn, who has championed broader reforms in the past, called the new approach Congress' only real shot at getting something signed by Trump.

But the scaled-back proposal is drawing push-back from some unexpected sources on Capitol Hill.

Left-leaning groups that support prison reform don't want Congress to abandon the sentencing changes, which they say address the underlying problem.

A group of 60 civil and human rights groups wrote to Senate leaders last month saying they reject any proposal that doesn't also include "front-end sentencing reforms" that "stem the tide of incarceration, reduce the exorbitant cost of the prison system, and give redress to those inside who are serving unreasonably long sentences for low-level offenses."

The Texas model could offer fuel for those arguments as well.

While its prison reforms have drawn praise from groups across the ideological spectrum, justice reform advocates say Texas' sentencing system needs work.

The state faces fresh criticism from human rights groups for a plan to speed up executions by limiting appeals for people on death row. Attorney General Ken Paxton requested permission for that change, citing the "excessive costs" of court proceedings.

Amanda Marzullo, executive director of Texas Defender Service, which is fighting the state on that issue, praised conservative groups for their role in the state's prison reforms. But, she said, "We have other issues that are very significant, that are worse than they are in other areas of the country."

Marzullo cited lack of access to legal counsel and issues with due process as problems that have helped fill Texas prisons. She cited the state's high rate of prison exoneration _ meaning people who were later found not guilty after a conviction _ as evidence of the system's sentencing flaws.

Still, she supports Washington's effort to model its reforms on Texas' initiatives.

"Texas has had some success," said Marzullo. "A lot of the reforms we've had in Texas could be replicated at the federal level."

Rollins, who oversaw some of those efforts at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, is transitioning to a job at the White House, where she will lead Kushner's Office of American Innovation.

She credited Texas for "redefining what criminal justice means in America," and said Trump takes the reform effort "seriously."

(c)2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau