Nick Oxford / REUTERS Inmates exercise outdoors at the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, May 2017.

The Art of a Deal on Criminal Justice Reform

Can Congress Send a Bill to Trump’s Desk?

When Donald Trump ascended to the White House, many criminal justice reform advocates lost all hope that bipartisan federal sentencing and prison reform legislation would ever make it to a floor vote in either chamber of the U.S. Congress, let alone to the president’s desk. After all, then candidate Trump made law and order a major theme of his campaign, and as president he appointed Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Hill’s most vocal opponent of sentencing reform, to the country’s top law enforcement post. But in one of the Beltway’s most interesting plot twists, historic criminal justice reform legislation now finds itself atop Trump’s policy agenda, and one floor vote away from his signature.

Some of us saw it coming. As I argued in the March/April 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, embracing criminal justice reform would not contradict but would “help realize Trump’s desire to be a ‘law and order’ president.”

Data from states that have implemented reforms show lower crime and recidivism rates than in other states, so it would be perfectly consistent for the president to be tough on crime and support federal reforms. And when Trump took office, Republican governors from around the country were eager to have his ear and share their own success stories from policies that safely reduced incarcerated populations, put people back to work, and turned them away from crime for good. Their shared experiences would be incompatible with Sessions’ archaic views on justice issues, and it was only a matter of time before Trump would tire of the criticism that his attorney general’s draconian agenda would draw from the right and the left alike.

Shortly after his confirmation, Sessions predictably set about returning the Department of Justice (DOJ) to the “war on drugs” policies of the 1980s and 1990s. On May10, 2017, he reversed a directive by former Attorney General Eric Holder and ordered federal prosecutors to file maximum charges against defendants that would

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