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Unlikely allies confer on prison reform at White House

The White House brought together unlikely allies in support of prison reform on Friday, leading to the surprising sig...

Posted: May. 20, 2018 9:27 AM
Updated: May. 20, 2018 9:27 AM

The White House brought together unlikely allies in support of prison reform on Friday, leading to the surprising sight of liberal pundit Van Jones sharing a venue with President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

"He constantly says such nice things about me," Trump quipped of Jones, a former Obama administration official and now a CNN political commentator. "I'll tell you what, though, it does feel good."

Trump, Jones and Kushner all share an interest in improving prison conditions and establishing programs to better prepare prisoners for re-entry into society -- areas that enjoy rare bipartisan support amid historic partisan rancor. Administration officials are hopeful a bill recently cleared by the House Judiciary Committee could provide a vehicle for their efforts.

Activists and experts were meeting with administration officials Friday to hash out plans pressuring Congress into taking further action. The effort is spearheaded by Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser whose broad portfolio also includes foreign policy and modernizing the federal government.

"Prison reform is an issue that unites people from across the political spectrum. It's an amazing thing," Trump said in remarks from the East Room. "Our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens."

He was speaking after Jones and Kushner worked to underscore the consensus that exists between Democrats and Republicans that some type of prison reform is long overdue.

The White House has said Trump would support a measure that addresses poor prison conditions by allowing for more visitation time and incentives for good behavior, along with making improvements for women prisoners like more accessible health products and ending the practice of shackling women during childbirth.

Kushner, whose father Charles was incarcerated for 14 months after being convicted on corruption charges, acknowledged his own ties to the matter.

"This is an issue that I had personal experience with, so I spent some time thinking about well from the White House what could be done," he said, describing his father-in-law as "all in" on a prison reform platform.

"This has to be the president's initiative or we wouldn't be able to work on it here," he said.

Some Democrats have pressed the administration to go further, hoping Trump would tackle harsh sentencing laws as part of a broader criminal justice push. But Kushner said there was greater agreement about improving prisons, and it provided more fertile ground for action.

"They've been trying to do sentencing reform and prison reform. And what they've done is nothing because they haven't been able to pass it through," Kushner said.

He was more hopeful about the First Step Act, which was approved 25-5 by the House Judiciary Committee last week. The measure would take steps to improve conditions in prisons by expanding programs tailored to individual prisoners and allowing for more home confinement.

Jones, who moderated a panel with Kushner and other experts, called Kushner's work on the issue "surprising" and "inspirational."

And he cast the debate in terms he said both parties could support.

"If we can't get together for liberty and justice for all, something's wrong with this country," Jones said. "We'll do something on this issue; we'll fight about everything else, but on this issue let's get together."

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