Second in size to Alaska, and trailing just California and New York in population, the state of Texas may turn out to be the biggest of all when it comes to influencing how the Trump Administration shapes its proposals and strategy on criminal justice reform.
A few years ago, it looked like the time might be right for far-reaching changes in the federal criminal justice system. Both conservative and liberal supporters were looking seriously at wide-ranging proposals to reduce mass incarceration through such steps as revising federal criminal sentencing laws and stressing alternatives to incarceration. (Numerous states were also active, and the lessons learned there could play a leading role in the federal debate.)
When the Trump administration took office, statements from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the president himself soon made it clear some of the more sweeping reform plans from the end of Obama’s second term, and the broader bill backed by Senate Judiciary chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA), wouldn’t have support from the Trump White House.
But in this year’s State of the Union address, the president called for expanding measures to help former inmates re-enter society and avoid recidivism. Even his tough-on-crime attorney general, who fought broad reform measures in 2016, singled a willingness to revamp the prison system, although balking at major changes in sentencing laws.
That’s largely due to persistent efforts by presidential senior advisor (and Trump’s son-in-law) Jared Kushner, whose wide-ranging areas of responsibility include helping the White House devise its criminal justice reform plans. Kushner has a personal interest in the issue: His father, real estate developer Charles Kushner, pleaded guilty in 2004 to illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering, and spent 14 months in an Alabama federal prison.
To persuade the Trump Administration of the value of criminal justice reform, Kushner and his diverse allies choose to emphasize what Trump in his State of the Union speech called prison reforms “to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.” That disappointed advocates of major sentencing law changes, but offers the best chance, though by no means a certainty, of winning action in this Congress.
Senate majority whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) have sponsored the “Corrections Act” (S. 1994, H.R. 3356). This measure would direct the Department of Justice (DOJ) to review current anti-recidivism and work programs, and develop and regularly review risk assessments for each eligible inmate. With a new emphasis on re-entry into society, individual recidivism reduction plans will be required, and participating inmates will receive credits for less restrictive custody.
Its advocates point to the success Texas and some other states saw after enacting similar laws over the past decade. In the mid-2000s, for example, Texas prisons were at 97% capacity, and budget officials warned the state would need $2 billion for an expected 17,000 additional inmates.
Instead, the state (then with the nation’s second-highest incarceration rate) enacted reforms, including diversion programs for low-level drug offenders, increased attention to rehabilitation and work readiness, and other “second chance” measures. Texas prison populations fell by about 14% and recidivism dropped by 9%, as the crime rate plummeted by about 30%. Instead of building new prisons, the state was able to close eight old ones, saving billions.
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 News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.