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April 1, 2019

"Trump Celebrates Criminal Justice Overhaul, but His Budget Barely Funds It"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article in the New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

President Trump on Monday is expected to host about 300 guests, including convicted felons, at the White House for the “First Step Act Celebration,” a party intended to bring attention to a rare piece of bipartisan legislation he passed last year, and which he plans to highlight on the campaign trail.

The East Room fete will cap a day of events dedicated to overhauling the criminal justice system, an issue that agencies across the government have been asked to elevate. The labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, is expected to participate in a panel on work force development.  Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is to lead a session about prisoner re-entry.  Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, will weigh in on a session dealing with incarcerated women. Kim Kardashian, the reality star, was even invited to participate in the panels and the party, but couldn’t attend.

Months after the legislation passed, and amid foreign policy blunders and a defeat on funding a wall along the southern border, Mr. Trump’s administration is putting the issue front and center.

But some activists who helped work on the legislation — which would expand job training and early-release programs, and modify sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders — have expressed concern that Mr. Trump is more attuned to the political opportunities the law offers him, rather than with ensuring it is enacted effectively.

Despite the high-profile party and round tables — and the White House releasing a presidential proclamation declaring April “second chance month” — Mr. Trump’s budget, released last month, listed only $14 million to pay for the First Step Act’s programs.  The law passed in December specifically asked for $75 million a year for five years, beginning in 2019. The funding gap was first reported by The Marshall Project.

Advocates participating in the events at the White House on Monday said they were hoping that officials would publicly address questions about funding the program. “The answer is a resounding yes. We’re fully committed to doing that,” said Ja’Ron Smith, a White House adviser who has worked extensively on the First Step Act implementation, referring to the funding.

In a budget justification document, the Bureau of Prisons, which operates under the Justice Department, said that it had not concluded how much money would be required to put the First Step Act into effect. But it goes on to say that fulfilling the law is a “priority” and that the Bureau of Prisons’ budget for re-entry activities “will be prioritized to fully fund the requirements of the act.” The document also noted that the prison bureau plans to dedicate $147 million in the 2020 fiscal year to First Step Act-related activities, which includes the cost of expanding halfway housing, the cost to relocate people and $85 million for the Second Chance Act grant program, which aids states and nonprofits in reducing recidivism.

Despite the assurances that the changes remain a budget priority, questions about funding have advocates on the issue concerned. “The First Step Act cannot fulfill its promise of turning federal prisons toward rehabilitation and preparing men and women to come home job-ready if it is not fully funded,” said Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of #Cut50, a prisoner advocacy group that worked closely with the White House to get the legislation passed. Ms. Sloan said the group has been meeting with appropriators and talking to White House officials for months “to ensure that the proper funding is requested and appropriated.”

Some activists have been more willing to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt, noting that the lower funding level for 2019 could be because First Step programs are not expected to be up and running until the end of August, less than two months before the end of the federal fiscal year....

At a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., last week, Mr. Trump described the First Step Act as legislation that politicians had been trying to do “for so many years.” He added a dig at his opposition: “While we are pushing and pursuing all of these common-sense policies to advance the common good for our citizens, Democrats are pushing a cynical and destructive agenda of radicalism, resistance and revenge.”

The kickoff party on Monday will also offer Mr. Trump an opportunity for a photo-op with convicted felons, many of whom are African-American, as his campaign advisers want him to expand his appeal beyond his hard-core base. Many Democratic lawmakers and prison advocacy groups were happy to work with the Trump administration on the legislation, despite early skepticism about Mr. Trump’s commitment to the issue.

After today's notable event at the White House, I may have a lot to say about how the politics and policy of federal sentencing reform are continuing to evolve in all sorts of interesting ways.

UPDATE: I just saw that NPR today had this segment, headlined "3 Months Into New Criminal Justice Law, Success For Some And Snafus For Others," which covers some similar ground.  Here is a small part of this piece:

Activists who backed passage of the law say that certain parts of the act are working as intended, but other parts seem to be facing delays and uncertainty. "It's been a mixed bag," said Mark Holden, general counsel to Koch Industries, which has been a big supporter of the statute....

Congress passed the law but has not appropriated funds for the initiative. And the president's budget released earlier this year did not clearly request the $75 million that is needed to support the new criminal justice overhaul.

Despite that, a senior administration official said Trump is committed to working with Congress to fully fund and implement the law. "We are hoping to get the independent review council in place as soon as possible," the official said.

The official blamed the 34-day government shutdown for contributing to delays but said there would not be a significant holdup.

Another official said the Justice Department is using resources it has on hand to work on the risk assessment tool internally, in the absence of the committee, and expects to meet the July deadline. But the official acknowledged that Congress will need to provide money or approve shifting funds around in order for the agency to move ahead with the panel and other aspects of the law.

Ensuring that the money is available will be crucial to the effectiveness of the First Step Act, said Nancy La Vigne, head of justice policy at the Urban Institute. "We always recognized that without proper funding, the First Step Act is really nothing more than window dressing," La Vigne said.

April 1, 2019 at 12:56 PM | Permalink

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