What Trump Might Say About Justice Reform At The State Of The Union

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Anders Hagstrom Justice Reporter
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President Donald Trump’s recent overtures to justice reform advocates are likely to leak into his inaugural State of the Union speech Tuesday night.

The president has yet to embrace the movement wholesale, however, Trump voiced support for prison and re-entry reforms in no uncertain terms. Recent weeks have shown the Trump administration to be enthusiastic about efforts to rehabilitate inmates and prepare them for civilian life after prison, much to the credit of Senior Adviser Jared Kushner.

Trump’s son-in-law has become the face of the administration’s criminal justice efforts and has repeatedly butted heads with Jeff Sessions over the attorney general’s preference for harsh sentences.

Trump has placed his policy goals squarely between Sessions and Kushner, adopting the “tough on crime” language of Sessions, but endorsing Kushner’s reforms efforts as well.

“We support our law enforcement partners, and we’re working to reduce crime and put dangerous offenders behind bars,” Trump said at a January prison reform meeting. “At the same time, we want to ensure that those who enter the justice system are able to contribute to their communities after they leave prison, which is one of many very difficult subjects we’re discussing, having to do with our great country.”

Two-thirds of the 650,000 inmates released each year are back in prison within the next three, Trump said. This shocking rate of recidivism creates massive and unnecessary financial strains.

Even Sessions has thrown his support behind prison reforms, seemingly using the issue as a bargaining tactic to prevent Kushner from pursuing soft-sentencing reforms. Sessions has increasingly found himself alone in his defense against reforms, however.

Red states such as Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Kentucky led the nation in slashing sentences and lowering prison populations in 2017, seeming to reject Sessions’ more traditional approach. Criticism of civil asset forfeiture has also grown under Sessions after he rolled back limitations on the practice, that allow law enforcement to seize and keep private property without convicting the owner of a crime.

There seems to be little political danger for Trump in shirking Sessions’ policies as a result. A new poll from Public Opinion Strategies for the Justice Action Network found that 76 percent of Americans believe the criminal justice system needs significant reforms, and 72 percent believe the country is spending too much on housing inmates. Critically, 85 percent believe the goal of the justice system should be to ensure that inmates don’t re-offend.

Trump is likely to make a connection to that overwhelming majority of Americans Tuesday night, advocating for reforms to help inmates land on their feet after prison.

“We have a great interest in helping them turn their lives around, get a second chance, and make our community safe,” Trump said. “We’ll be very tough on crime, but we will provide a ladder of opportunity to the future.”

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