« Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl gets no prison time, Prez Trump not too pleased | Main | Some more diverse reading about the opioid crisis »

November 4, 2017

"Can Jared Kushner Save Criminal Justice Reform?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this recent Marshall Project article about a figure who has long been seen as an important figure in the fate of federal criminal justice reform in the Trump Era.  Here are some excerpts:

In July, [Pat] Nolan, now director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform and a leading figure in a conservative reform effort that goes under the rubric Right on Crime, picked up the newspaper and saw that Jared Kushner was well-placed to advance the cause. Nolan reconnected and began sending Kushner memos on how private businesses and church groups could be mobilized to become mentors for released prisoners. Kushner almost always responded within hours.

Nolan’s faith has been bolstered by a flurry of meetings, summits and dinners that Kushner has held in recent weeks with lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates, leading the more optimistic activists to believe the tough-on-criminals posture of President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions may not mean a complete freeze on federal reforms.

Many wonder whether Kushner has the clout and skill to maneuver any reform to enactment. No new initiatives or official messages of support for reform legislation have come from a White House that has ratcheted up enforcement of drug and immigration offenses. But given a window into the 36-year-old’s dealing with bipartisan groups seeking reforms, Nolan thinks Kushner, driven by his own personal frustrations with the criminal justice system, stands a chance of success. “He cares passionately about this,” Nolan said....

In September, Nolan was among faith leaders invited by Kushner to discuss ideas for a national mentoring program to help released prisoners resettle in their communities -- a measure that would require minimal federal effort. Later that afternoon, Kushner convened a roundtable of politicians, criminal justice reform groups, religious leaders, employers and others in the Indian Treaty Room in the East Wing of the Eisenhower Executive Building. The conference was called the “Prisoner Reentry Summit” and participants had been sent questions in advance to prepare.

“Please let us know if there are ways in which the President can amplify already successful programs, Federal and private sector/nonprofit, or assist in making a program more effective,” the questionnaire said. “While suggestions for the investment of Federal resources are appreciated, please also be sure to highlight opportunities that do not require Federal funding.”In a navy blue suit, Kushner sat in the middle of a long conference table flanked to his left and right by Nolan and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin. Others at the meeting included U.S. senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and John Cornyn of Texas, U.S. representatives Chris Collins of New York and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson and Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta.

Participants spoke for three to five minutes each on a range of challenges faced by released prisoners, including housing, education and employment while Kushner took notes, asked questions and identified next steps, Holden said. A Department of Justice official who attended signaled that the DOJ was interested in drug courts and programs that could help released prisoners transition back to communities, a surprise to those who feared that Attorney General Sessions’ agenda would only focus on enforcing laws and punishing criminals. “It wasn’t ‘lock em up and throw away the key,’” Holden said. (About a week after the summit, the Department of Justice announced that it was awarding more than $9.5 million to juvenile and family drug court programs across the country.)...

No new initiatives have been launched by the White House since the meeting but other positive signs for reform have followed. Early this month a bipartisan group of senators led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin and several others reintroduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a popular bipartisan bill that died last year when it was never put up for a vote. The bill would give judges more discretion at sentencing to skirt mandatory minimum sentence requirements for people with short criminal histories, and its revival was unexpected; Sessions had strongly opposed the bill last year when he was in the Senate.“Something happened,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, Justice Program director of the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice. “We don’t know what happened. What I found interesting about the resurrection of this particular bill is that Sessions did a lot of work to kill this bill.”

Sources in the Senate say Kushner has pledged White House support for the bill. Does that mean he believes he has more sway with President Trump than Sessions does? Or has Sessions changed his mind or reached a compromise with Kushner and senators? Attempts to reach Kushner through the White House communications director were not successful. A DOJ spokesman declined an interview request for Sessions....

In talks with Nolan, Kushner has indicated that he believes Sessions is more of a proponent of second chance programs than many have been led to believe. Sessions’ Senate record includes sponsoring legislation that reduced the discrepancies for penalties for using crack versus cocaine and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. “He thinks that the press and the public have misinterpreted where Sessions is coming from,” Nolan said. “He thinks there is a lot more commitment from Sessions to working toward reforms. ”But even if Kushner can hurdle Sessions’ reservations, Whitehouse said, White House leadership will be needed to persuade House Speaker Paul Ryan to guide a bill through a House obstacle course, and convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to give the bill floor time and line up votes. “There are ways to get there but it requires levers to be applied that the White House has and I do not,” Whitehouse said....

Of the conservatives who have Kushner’s ear, Whitehouse says, “To be blunt, I am skeptical of their motives.” But having participated in two meetings with Kushner on the subject, Whitehouse said he believes the president’s son-in-law is serious about improving the criminal justice system. “I’ve seen the way he talks about it,” Whitehouse said. “I haven’t the faintest idea of how he polls in the White House,” but “I know he’s sincere about this.”

November 4, 2017 at 11:09 AM | Permalink


Jared Kushner will soon be an expert on the criminal justice system from the inside that is. Just sayin'

Posted by: Dave from Texas | Nov 4, 2017 12:35:03 PM

Of the conservatives who have Kushner’s ear, Whitehouse says, “To be blunt, I am skeptical of their motives.”

I'm not so much skeptical of their motives as I as skeptical of what they want to achieve. There are certain parties that want to wear the mantel of reform but don't actually want reform or they do what "reform" but the reform they want is so slight and tangential that it amounts to no reform at all. Now, this may be because of bad motives or it may be that they simply don't want to stick their neck out and get burned politically.

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 4, 2017 12:52:36 PM

I don't think there was a question of Kushner's sincerity. Instead, does anyone who wants meaningful reform have the clout to push this through in the face of people who do not want reform (Attny General) and those who like to talk righteously about reform but don't want the political liability associated with sending fewer people to prison. Congress will be working on tax cuts for the rich, and I remember some promises of an infrastructure bill. And, as @Dave from Tx mentioned, Kushner needs to worry about being indicted by Mueller.

Bet a year from now, there will be similar pieces about hopes for CJ reform. Only difference will be that Doug will have fewer opportunities to blame Obama.

Posted by: Paul | Nov 5, 2017 10:52:43 AM

You insights are wise, Paul, and they only lead me to be even more inclined to blame Obama. For two years, his party had control of large parts of Congress and all he cared to help get done was a weak version of crack reform (better than nothing, but just barely). And in 2013 there could/should have readily been a deal to get at least crack reform retroactivity and mens rea reform done with the Rs, but Prez Obama and AG Holder were seemingly more content to talk about statutory reform than to actually do what was needed to get any more done.

I remain hopeful that reform can still happen so that I will not spend generations being grumpy about what Prez Obama left on the table. But there was an opportunity to greatly improve federal law and make history during a unique window of time simply by urging Rs in Congress to follow what Rs have been doing nationwide at the state level, and yet Prez Obama was unwilling or unable to help get it done. There is plenty of blame to go around, but Prez Obama merits plenty and always will.

Posted by: Doug B | Nov 5, 2017 7:43:43 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB