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April 25, 2019

"Jared Kushner: Fifteen Lessons I Learned From Criminal-Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting Time commentary authored by Jared Kushner, which seems to be something of a follow up to his interview as part of The TIME 100 Summit.  I would recommend the extended piece in full, especially for those interested in more background on how the FIRST STEP Act became a reality and how best to be successful in seeking the next steps in federal criminal justice reform.  Here is a taste:

In the wake of this legislation, hundreds of people have asked me how it was possible in the middle of such a divided political climate to bring both parties together on an issue that initially seemed to have no consensus, no champion and no pathway.  Pursuing the passage of the First Step Act was one of the hardest experiences of my life.  I got a close-up view of how Congress works — and how it doesn’t.  Because this was neither a major issue of the campaign nor one of the first priorities of the new Administration, I did a lot of the staff work on it myself, with a small and dedicated team, and we were able to follow what I designed as a more intuitive process, instead of a standard legislative process. This ended up working even though this bill nearly died dozens of times along the way. Here are the key lessons I learned from the experience.

The first lesson is that you have to reach out and talk to the other side. You will never make a deal in politics by only talking to people who agree with you.  Ivanka and I would frequently host bipartisan groups of six to eight legislators at our home for off-the-record dinners, normally on a specific legislative priority, and the first toast was always by someone saying, “We don’t do this enough. We used to spend more time with people in the other party in safe and productive environments.”  Politics is a tribal business, and my reaching out to Democrats made some on the right uncomfortable.  My politics have been those of an independent.  Since I was new to professional politics, I did not feel that I knew the best way to solve the problems we have in this country so I sought out respected people on both sides of the aisle.  I saw that when people reach out on either side of the aisle, they are subjected to criticism and even being labeled a “traitor” by those in their own party.  By contrast, President Trump is a pragmatist.  He looks to solve problems but is not ideologically fixed. I believed that he deserved thoughtful, researched options on how to pursue the promises that he made to the American people.  There are many different ways to solve problems and no party has a monopoly on good ideas.

The second lesson is that you have to engage early with a diverse group of people.  For the prison reform effort, we started out by hosting multiple listening sessions in which we assembled the right people and allowed everyone to share their perspective. T his included Senators, Congressmen, governors, academics, law enforcement and many others. From these conversations we got good ideas, we saw overlapping areas of agreement, and we made people feel included in the process from the outset. Asking a lot of questions and closely listening, helped me form a more nuanced perspective.  As my close friend and mentor Ambassador Bob Lighthizer would tell me during intense trade negotiations, “I don’t know anyone who ever got smarter by talking.”  While being in the White House and having the President on board was powerful, we could not have gotten this done if it weren’t for the many outside groups supporting the effort.  There are too many to name who worked on this issue for a decade before I got involved, but they laid the foundation for our success.  When we had politicians on the fence about voting with us, we would activate these outside groups and they always knew who the most influential voices were for each Senator or Congressman.  Having many supporters out on TV and in the communities in both liberal and conservative circles helped bring around others who were less familiar with the issue.  This coalition enabled me to cross the most important hurdle of all, which was to get President Trump to support this effort over the objections of others.

The third lesson is to study what was tried and assess why it failed.  Our system was designed to make change hard, and I remind my team all the time not to be afraid to follow intuition over ceremony and to try new approaches. We started by looking at the 2016 legislative effort and sought to understand who supported it and why the effort had failed. We were told that the Senate would not put a new bill on the floor since there was still too much disagreement. The leading opponent in 2016 was then Senator Jeff Sessions, who in 2018 was the Attorney General. Following dozens of discussions with interested parties, I engaged with him and after several meetings I was able to get him to agree not to block prison-reform efforts in exchange for us not working on the sentencing reforms he opposed. I told him that I would assume that we would work in good faith to achieve our shared goals of reducing crime. To that end, we would take all of his comments under advisement and try to incorporate them to the degree possible.  This angered Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin, who had spent considerable time crafting the compromise language on the old bill.  They were skeptical of Sessions’ working in good faith on this issue and thought we were disrespecting their work. After several heated meetings, I told them that we were going to start working in the House on a prison-reform bill.

The other side of this is to study what has worked . The best thing about the federalist system is that the states are laboratories of democracy where ideas are tested. On prison reform we analyzed the many red states where reforms have succeeded.  For instance, in Texas in 2002, Governor Rick Perry saw that the costs of incarceration were rising fast. He determined, with the help of his then policy director Brooke Rollins — who later led this effort with me from the White House — that you can change the prison system to focus it on locking up the worst violent criminals and that by being more targeted with these efforts you can lower incarceration costs and also lower crime rates.

The fourth lesson was to develop a full legislative strategy early, and be prepared to modify as things progressed.  We started working with Representatives Doug Collins and Hakeem Jeffries in the House, who had been the co-sponsors for the previous prison-reform bill.  What we hoped would be easy got complicated very quickly.  When the White House engaged, this raised the profile of the effort making it more political than it was the last time.  We received criticism on all sides.  Law-enforcement groups insisted that the current version of the bill was inadequate and in need of major revisions; Congressman Jeffries was taking heat for working with Trump’s White House; and Senate Democrats even claimed that our version of the bill was potentially racially discriminatory in how it would be implemented.  We had our work cut out for us.

The fifth lesson is that the details really matter.  It’s easy for politicians to disagree on big concepts, but you find compromise and solutions in the details. During the negotiations we had many moments where both sides almost quit.  At one point, those at the table who were against the bill had put so many poison pill provisions into the draft legislation that I got an emergency call from Ja’Ron Smith, the talented legislative staffer who volunteered to work on this with me.  Ja’Ron told me that Jeffries’ team had walked away. The poison pills did not matter to our primary objective, while putting undue pressure on the Congressman, who was already getting a lot of criticism from the left. I didn’t want to let him down.  We reviewed the provisions and determined which ones were reasonable and which were not....

The seventh lesson is that nothing significant in Washington gets done without the President’s buy-in. After a year of research and planning, we were confident that this was a worthwhile effort but could not take any further steps without President Trump’s blessing.  The President was a bit skeptical going into the meeting, saying “Jared, this sounds like a pretty liberal issue.”  So I scheduled a policy meeting in January 2018 with external conservative leaders who could better explain how these reforms would advance his agenda.  Before it began, Sarah Sanders noted that her father had passed similar reforms in Arkansas and that they were some of the most impactful and popular things he had done.  When the President entered the room he was pleased to see many familiar conservative faces.  I made a few introductory points and quickly passed it off to others to make the case.  Having conservative governors, activists and law-enforcement leaders there helped a lot.  But the most important statement made at that meeting was by aide Reed Cordish who said to President Trump, “You promised during your campaign to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country. There is no one more forgotten or underrepresented than the people in prison.” I could see that this statement hit the President and moved him deeply.

After we had gone through the statistics and policy, the President said, “That’s really sad. These people make a mistake, do their time, get out and then have all of these challenges. In some ways, what do we expect them to do?”  He saw immediately why both parties should support these reforms and told me: “I am all in. Let’s get it done, but work with Jeff to make sure this isn’t soft on crime.”

April 25, 2019 at 01:48 PM | Permalink

Comments

Hope he doesn't hurt himself patting himself on the back.

Posted by: whatever | Apr 25, 2019 2:13:35 PM

this is so dumb and stupid it hurts my head to think about just how dumb and stupid is. Only well off white people think the first step act is real reform. It's a mirage that functionally does nothing to impact the real systemtic problems but will surely be used as a cudgel to beat back real and future reform efforts. congrats professional non-profit think tank types!

Posted by: who gives a shit | Apr 25, 2019 3:10:22 PM

I do not think anyone, who gives, views the FIRST STEP Act as addressing "real systemtic problems." But I do think the 1000+ folks already getting reduced sentences, and the tens of thousands in the future to benefit from improved prison programming, likely think this reform is better than nothing. And nothing (and worse than nothing) is all that had been delivered from Congress for quite some time.

In an effort to be constructive, I would be eager to hear your views on how best to address "the real systemtic problems." Are only 2020 Prez candidates putting forth proposals to do so in your view? Do you think there is a viable political path to getting a lot more done?

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 25, 2019 4:02:38 PM

The most recent and finest ideas about reform can be found in Rachel Barkow's new book.

Posted by: whatever | Apr 25, 2019 5:26:51 PM

Locking people away for most their life is inhumane unless they are unable to be rehabilitated. Most prisons do nothing to help rehabilitate prisoners - let me walk that back, they do have what is called road therapy. That is when the prisons shuffle the prisoners between prisons. There are useful ways to rehabilitate or reform a prisoner. They can also have them make restitution to the victim instead of paying "attorney's" that serve the courts. Mass murderers are an abomination to society and need to be given the death penalty and not drag it out for 20 years, as long as there is undeniable evidence.

Posted by: LC in Texas | Apr 26, 2019 8:29:04 PM

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