An administration not known for policy creativity is unlikely to have useful internal policy debates. But in the Trump administration, prison reform is a welcome exception.
This is largely because of the efforts of President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who, in common with millions of poor and minority children in America, has had the searing experience of visiting a father in prison. Kushner has displayed considerable passion in recruiting conservatives to the cause of prison reform. He has been opposed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who seems stuck in a get-tough-on-crime time warp.
In the context of this disagreement — reflected in the broader conservative movement — the House has passed a worthwhile but watered-down bill called the First Step Act. This legislation would make changes on the exit side of incarceration — increasing funding for education and job-training programs and allowing inmates to earn credits for early release. As a result of opposition from Sessions and others, the bill does not focus on the entrance side of incarceration — sentencing reform that would encourage alternatives to imprisonment for less dangerous offenders.
In the Senate, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), is pushing for comprehensive reform that covers both exit and entrance. And Grassley is urging Trump to use his tweeting superpower to endorse a bolder approach.
Conservatives are split on issues surrounding prison reform. But the debate is happening for a supremely conservative reason: because states have demonstrated it can work. In the current issue of National Affairs, Lars Trautman and Arthur Rizer III provide a helpful survey of a red-state policy revolution. States such as Texas, Georgia and Louisiana have taken measures to divert addicts and people with mental-health problems from incarceration, to limit mandatory minimums and to make wider and better use of parole.
The theory is simple. America’s vast experiment in routine incarceration — which has quadrupled the U.S. incarceration rate since 1972 — had some effect in reducing contact between dangerous offenders and potential victims. But recidivism rates are dismal. And millions of relatively nondangerous people have been swept up into a justice system that puts them in intimate contact with dangerous offenders, exposes them to rape and violence, deprives their families of emotional and financial support, and sends them back into communities without skills and stamped with a felony stigma.