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What do politicians and Jared Kushner have to do with federal prison reform? Prison reform is a large subject, and politicians will always politicalize aspects of any subject. Kushner could be the catalyst that results in reform. Why is that? He’s connected to the issues.

His father-in-law, according to Insider’s Maxwell Tani, has tasked Kushner with solving some of the world’s most complex and confounding political problems domestically and abroad, including the reformation of the criminal justice system. Kushner must have broad shoulders or an overinflated sense of worth—or just a problem saying no—but he makes sense in the role of the orchestrator of federal prison reform.

Why Kushner, and why does he care? It comes down to what prison reform means to him. Prison reform means different things to people. People with no direct or indirect experience with any prison system are only media schooled about prison conditions. Our points of view dictate the meanings we assign to our subjective beliefs. The problem with the phrase prison reform is that it’s far from exact. In an inexact and complex world, politicians can skew the intended meaning and words and phrases. As you’ll see, putting prison reform and politics together opens a whole new vista for a chopped word salad.

In What Does Prison Reform Mean?, I took a closer look at what prison reform means to people in our lives and to those we’ve never known. Kushner falls into what I describe as a Category Three: Vicariously Exposed person—one who has “had experience with prison through someone they love or care about.”

I don’t know anything about Kushner other than from the media, but I do know that his father was convicted on federal charges in 2005 for witness tampering, illegal campaign contributions, and tax evasion. Charles Kushner served fourteen months in a federal prison. By all reports, his exposure to criminal prosecution was a hardship on the family.

An interesting aside to prison exposure is that the Kushner Company now has an open hiring policy for formerly incarcerated people. In a Bloomberg report, David Kocieniewski and Caleb Melby wrote

A Kushner spokesman said the company is proud to have hired Lebor and Goettlich, along with other ex-convicts, as part of its second-chance program. Charles [Kushner] is also a board member of Getting Out & Staying Out, which mentors young inmates at Rikers Island.

Any company espousing a second-chance program and having an aware hiring policy is engaged in reentry prison reform for men and women returning from incarceration. As it turns out, it makes sense that Kushner has a higher sensitivity to prison reform since he’s experienced prison vicariously through his father. He knows firsthand what a second chance means for people. I hope I’m right.

What about the Politicians?

The president’s State of the Union address gave a one-sentence nod to prison reform. As reported by CNN Politics, Mr. Trump is quoted as I remember him saying: “This year [2017], we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.” While Trump’s intentions pointed in the right direction, his remark split the subject of prison reform into two politicized orbits: Trump’s focus on the reentry of inmates after they’ve served their terms and the exclusion of judicial justice reform before incarceration, such as bail and federal sentencing guideline reforms.

A month ago, the House judiciary committee scrapped plans to mark up an earlier version of the bill after support waned—due in part, according to House reports, to private urging by Senate judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Senate minority whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) to oppose the plan because it didn’t include sentencing reforms.

Grassley, along with several key Senate Democrats and influential civil rights groups like the ACLU and NAACP, wants a comprehensive criminal justice system overhaul that includes both sentencing and prison reforms.

While some politicians have been working to build a bipartisan coalition of support, key lawmakers—including Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), top Democrat on the House judiciary panel—remain potential obstacles. I don’t share Nadler’s concern. Getting some reform is better than none. Linking the two issues caused the bill to detour to nearly a dead end.

Under Trump’s purview, unspoken hardships associated with overcrowded and underrehabilitative prison landscapes would have been addressed. While victimless crimes (often drug related) have pernicious effects on inmates’ lives that impact their families, in a sick sort of balance, inmates returning to the streets need to be prepared to function in society.

Political dissonance almost sabotaged the bill. In a recent report in Politico, Heather Caygle and Elana Schor gave a succinct synopsis of the forces behind the stall:

The Trump administration and GOP leaders want to see a prison-only bill move, not the broader criminal justice bill, but that’s not stopping Grassley and Durbin from what one Republican portrayed as meddling in the House debate.

The bill as originally proposed authorized funding for training programs to help rehabilitate prisoners. According to another Politico article by Heather Caygle, the following changes would be made to the bill:

  • The bill would authorize $50 million annually for five years to provide education and vocational training programs to prisoners; the latest version would also allow nonviolent drug offenders to participate in the programs.
  • Language [would be added] that would allow more prisoners to take advantage of credits that would allow inmates to serve part of their sentence in home confinement or at a halfway house.
  • The [proposal would include] language codifying prohibitions on shackling pregnant female inmates, both during their pregnancy and for 12 weeks postpartum.
  • The bill [would] include a technical fix that would allow inmates to earn up to 54 days of “good time” credit a year, up from 47 days annually under current interpretation of the law.

Update

On May 9, 2018, in their Politico article “Kushner-Backed Prisons Bill Surges Ahead,” Elana Schor and Heather Caygle reported the following:

The prison legislation, a key priority of Jared Kushner, won easy approval in the House Judiciary Committee. It was a striking turnabout after backers scrapped a vote on an earlier version two weeks ago amid waning support. But the bill’s lopsided 25-5 vote masked ongoing disputes among Senate Republicans and House Democrats over its omission of sentencing reforms opposed by President Donald Trump. Critics of the measure say those sentencing reforms are crucial to any deal.

The authors warn that getting noninclusive sentencing reform through the Senate may be the torpedo that kills the Trump/Kushner-backed bill. The article quotes a statement by Grassley and Durbon: “For any criminal justice reform proposal to win approval in the Senate, it must include these sentencing reforms.”

It’s difficult to judge Kushner’s value in passing the bill through the House judiciary committee. He’s not quoted often in news reports. Kushner needs to advocate for a full bill of changes and to not simply adopt Trump’s exclusion of sentencing reform within a fully comprehensive bill. I don’t know much about Kushner; I hope he continues to be a rough-and-ready catalyst for this task.

Your comments are always welcome.

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