WASHINGTON — In the final months of the Obama administration, the Justice Department announced a new approach to preparing prisoners for life beyond their cells. Officials created a prison school system, pledged money for technology training and promised to help prevent former inmates from returning to prison.
Almost immediately after taking office, Trump administration officials began undoing their work. Budgets were slashed, the school system was scrapped and studies were shelved as Attorney General Jeff Sessions brought to bear his tough-on-crime philosophy and deep skepticism of Obama-era crime-fighting policies.
Now, nearly a year and a half later, the White House has declared that reducing recidivism and improving prisoner education is a top priority — echoing some of the very policies it helped dismantle.
This whiplash approach to federal prison policy reflects the tension between Jared Kushner, the president’s reform-minded son-in-law and senior adviser, and Mr. Sessions, a hard-liner whose views on criminal justice were forged at the height of the drug war. It has left both Democratic and Republican lawmakers confused and has contributed to skepticism that the Trump administration is serious about its own proposals.
On Capitol Hill, a wholesale reconsideration of American sentencing laws and prison policies has bipartisan support. Dozens of senators have sponsored a bill to change mandatory-minimum sentences and ease drug laws that have been used to seek lengthy sentences for nonviolent offenders. The bill also includes provisions to expand education, worker training and drug rehabilitation programs in prison.
Mr. Kushner, administration officials say, supports such sweeping change. Mr. Sessions is adamantly opposed. The two men reached a compromise in recent months: Mr. Kushner could push for the prison changes, but Mr. Sessions would position the administration strongly against a broader overhaul.
In a letter to Congress last month, Mr. Sessions excoriated the bill, predicting it “would reduce sentences for a highly dangerous cohort of criminals, including repeat dangerous drug traffickers and those who use firearms.”
The letter enraged the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican chairman, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa. Twenty-five senators, split nearly evenly between the two parties, have sponsored his bill, which reform advocates in both parties regard as the best chance to undo the strict laws that contribute to the United States containing the world’s largest prison population.
Mr. Sessions promised last fall that he would work with the Senate to address those laws. “We’ve never had any dialogue since,” said Mr. Grassley, one of Mr. Trump’s most important Capitol Hill allies during his first year in office. “I resent the president not helping me more, when I worked so hard to push along his judicial nominees.”
Instead, the White House is backing Mr. Kushner’s push to overhaul just prisons. “We can change the way the country thinks about prison and the job of prisons in this country,” he said during an interview in the West Wing. “I think that will save a lot of lives.”
The White House released seven principles it hopes to see in legislation. Some are specific, like expanding job-training programs in prison. Others are purely generic: “Effectively use government resources to reduce crime, enhance public safety and increase opportunity, thereby improving the lives of all Americans.”
Mr. Kushner’s father served prison time for tax evasion, witness tampering and making illegal campaign donations. His son has convinced advocates for an overhaul, even those who are not natural allies, that he personally cares about the issue.
“I do believe that Jared Kushner is earnest in his desire for criminal justice reform,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, of the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice. “But Jeff Sessions is still stuck in 1980. He hasn’t moved along with everyone else, including top prosecutors and police chiefs, who realize that tough-on-crime doesn’t work.”
Ms. Chettiar said she was not convinced that Mr. Kushner’s support was enough to get the administration behind real change — even in the narrow area of prisons.
The Justice Department said Mr. Sessions fully supported the White House principles and was committed to helping inmates develop the skills needed to return to society. But Mr. Sessions is not rushing to promote those efforts: Over two weeks, the Justice Department refused to make anyone available to discuss them and would not identify which prison education programs have been cut and which remain.
“They’re not going to talk to you about this,” said Joe Rojas, a teacher at the federal prison complex in Coleman, Fla. He said the Justice Department could not answer those questions without acknowledging that the Trump administration had cut more than 6,000 prison jobs.
Staffing is so short that teachers around the country are regularly reassigned to cover routine guard duties, he said.
One of the White House priorities is to offer incentives to encourage inmates to enroll in programs to prepare them for life outside prison. Mr. Rojas and others are quick to note that incentives are not the problem: Educational programs are so popular that more than 15,000 federal inmates are on waiting lists for high school equivalency diploma and literacy programs, according to a 2016 Justice Department report.
“It sounds pretty on paper,” said Mr. Rojas, who is the president of his American Federation of Government Employees union local. “But when you cut staff, you can’t do anything.”
Administration officials say it is unfair to view the White House initiative through a lens of what has been cut. Mr. Kushner got involved only after those cuts were made. As for broader overhaul efforts, he has made his case to advocates that it is better to address prison problems than do nothing.
And some longtime advocates agree, even if begrudgingly. Koch Industries, for example, lobbied hard for sweeping criminal justice changes, including more lenient sentencing. But Mark Holden, the group’s general counsel, said he saw an opportunity to improve prisons — even if it was not everything advocates wanted.
“This is something that pretty much everyone agrees with, so let’s start where there’s a consensus and build,” he said.
Mr. Grassley said that he while appreciated Mr. Kushner’s desire to get something done, he did not support any effort to try to address prisons without fixing what he saw as fundamental unfairness in sentencing laws. And he believes Mr. Kushner shares his views. “But he sees a chance of getting half a loaf, and he’s willing to settle for a half a loaf,” Mr. Grassley said. “I’m not going to.”
The White House argues that Mr. Grassley’s argument is moot because the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, will not allow a vote on a broad criminal justice bill that divides Republicans.
Mr. Grassley sees that as an excuse. “If the president would start tweeting about it every other day like he tweets about everything else, McConnell would come along,” he said.
Mr. Kushner believes that the White House can forge consensus around prison reform. He wants the federal government to look to states for proven ideas to reduce recidivism. The White House recently hired Brooke Rollins, a conservative lawyer who advocated such changes in Texas, a state that is often held up by both conservatives and liberals as a leader in reducing recidivism.
Amy Lopez, a former teacher in the Texas prison system, agreed that the federal government could learn from states. More data exists than ever before, she said, and it shows that education reduces the chance that a former inmate will be arrested again.
The Justice Department hired Ms. Lopez in 2016 to replace the patchwork prison education system with a centralized school district that offered diplomas, technology training and vocational education.
“It was interesting to have this focus at the federal level on education,” she said. “That was new.”
Within months, she was fired, the school system axed. She took a job overseeing education in Washington’s city corrections system.
Trump administration officials say that, as part of the new focus on prisons, if the school idea turns out to have been a good one, they can always reconsider it.
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