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White House Adviser Jared Kushner Pushes Prison Reform Bill Forward

May 14, 2018
Originally published on May 14, 2018 8:19 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There is some movement on the bipartisan effort to overhaul the nation's federal prisons. The House Judiciary Committee recently advanced a bill to improve prison conditions, and the White House is also getting involved. Here to talk more about the effort is NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey there.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So you've been covering plans it seems like for years, plans to change, upgrade, update the U.S. prison system. Get us up to speed. Where do those plans stand?

JOHNSON: Well, last week the House Judiciary Committee voted 25 to 5 to approve legislation called the FIRST STEP Act. That bill would make life a little bit easier for pregnant inmates. And it would offer programs prisoners could take to earn good time credits, credits for possible early release. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York who co-sponsored the bill in the House, explained his motivation.

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HAKEEM JEFFRIES: And even those who are appropriately in confinement should be given the opportunity at a second chance in life to re-enter society and pursue the American dream.

JOHNSON: I've been on the phone about this. I'm hearing the bill could get a vote from the full U.S. House of Representatives next week before the Memorial Day holiday.

KELLY: All right, so that sounds promising. But I gather there is a catch 'cause you're talking about the House and the Senate may be in a really different place.

JOHNSON: Mary Louise, there's a big catch. For some justice advocates this legislation in the House is actually a step backwards, not forwards. Take a listen to Inimai Chettiar of the Brennan Center.

INIMAI CHETTIAR: It doesn't actually release prisoners. It moves them from prisons to halfway homes. But if the halfway homes are underfunded, there's no place for them to go.

JOHNSON: In other words, this is not the same plan we've been talking about for six or seven years since the Obama White House. That bigger plan would touch tens of thousands of prisoners and change some of those tough mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, actually reducing the number of people who go behind bars in the first place. What the House is doing now is a much smaller bite of the apple. And people in the Senate, including the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, Chuck Grassley, are now holding out for a lot more.

KELLY: All right. And meanwhile, let me introduce a third actor on the stage. I mentioned the White House is involved. And I want to ask about the role of Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and top adviser. Jared Kushner has said prison reform is one of his top priorities. What is he doing to move things along?

JOHNSON: Jared Kushner feels this to be a personal issue. Remember; his own father went to prison, and Kushner regularly visited him inside bars.

KELLY: That's right. Yeah.

JOHNSON: Yeah. So Kushner since he got to the White House has been holding roundtable discussions about this. One of the people he's trying to partner with is the Texas senator John Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership. Cornyn has introduced a more modest version of prison reform as of last week. It's a kind of a companion to the House plan we've been talking about. And together Kushner and Cornyn are going to try to push the Senate to take up this legislation even though the leader of the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, thinks that's a bad idea in an election year. Now, experts who've been following these issues for a long time thinks it's - think it's going to be a tough slog, lots of talking, lots of energy. But in the end it's quite likely that Congress won't be able to get anything done.

KELLY: Wow. It sounds like you may have many more years to come of following person reform. That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.