Both while a candidate and after taking office, President Donald Trump has frequently boasted he’ll get tough on criminals and ensure the justice system promotes public safety.
On Sept. 13, he was out of Washington, inspecting hurricane damage in Florida. But back at the White House, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and close advisor, convened a roundtable on crime — but with a much different focus: exploring ways to assist former inmates re-enter society.
Kushner heads the Office of American Innovation, created by his father-in-law, and has said one of its priority issues will be improving prospects for prisoners on release from incarceration. Some commentators have noted Kushner’s father Charles, a real estate magnate, served the better part of two years in a federal prison camp in Montgomery, Alabama as part of a 2005 plea bargain over charges of tax evasion, illegal campaign donations, and witness tampering.
The White House gathering drew several dozen attendees, ranging from Cabinet officers (HUD’s Ben Carson and Labor’s Alex Acosta), senior members of Congress from both parties (Sens. John Cornyn, R-TX and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI), governors (Kansas’ Sam Brownback and Kentucky’s Matt Bevin), and criminal justice reform advocates. The Department of Justice representatives at the roundtable session did not include Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his top deputy Rod Rosenstein, or newly appointed Bureau of Prisons director Mark Inch.
Much like the informal coalition that backed a broad-ranging criminal justice reform package which stalled in the previous Congress, those at the White House roundtable reflected diverse backgrounds and philosophies. Besides advocates from some church and criminal justice groups, the gathering also included some business and conservative policy representatives arguing for “smart on crime” measures, looking for practical changes capable of reducing recidivism. One White House official at the meeting noted that, of ex-offenders released from incarceration before the age of 25, statistics show fully 84 percent will be rearrested before they’ve been out for five years.
The participants support various steps to reshape incarceration practices to better prepare inmates to be able to find and hold productive employment. Some also want to change laws and government regulations they see as presenting serious obstacles to former inmates seeking to re-enter society. For instance, at the mid-September roundtable, the top lawyer for Koch Industries – whose top executives Charles and David Koch are top fundraisers for various conservative causes – spoke strongly in favor of “ban the box” proposals, which forbid most inquiries about criminal record history during early stages of job interviews, to prevent former offenders from being screened out from job openings before they have a chance to have their skills and qualifications considered.
The White House has not yet released further information on discussions at the roundtable, or what they may lead to. Kushner told a National Public Radio reporter it was too early for the Office of American Innovation to make policy recommendations, since it’s still in the early stages of gathering suggestions and exchanging views on how the government can work more effectively in easing former offenders back into society, to both reduce crime and reduce the costs of incarceration. So it remains to be seen if the new Trump team will be able to discover, much less adopt, innovative approaches to keeping recently released inmates from winding up back inside.
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 The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.