What a difference a year makes. While in 2017 efforts to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system seemed to fizzle out completely on Capitol Hill, this year it seems to be gaining momentum – and that's in part because of the president himself.
"As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens," Donald Trump said in his fist State of the Union address last month. "That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance."
Many political watchers were surprised Trump even mentioned the words "second chance" because he and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions – an old school southerner who has warned that relaxing stiff, unforgiving prison penalties would benefit criminals – have been focused on a tough on crime agenda.
But criminal justice reform is now moving through Capitol Hill again. On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bipartisan bill that relaxes mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes on a 16-5 vote. While that effort still faces hurdles – namely opposition from Sessions himself – it's a significant step forward.
In part, the sea change seems to be because the president's son-in-law and counselor Jared Kushner is advocating for prison reform and – at least for now – he seems to have overruled Sessions
Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill is seizing on this unexpected change from inside the White House. They passed the sentencing reform bill over the protests of Sessions and his Department of Justice.
"This is a wide pathway to get something done," Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) tells Rolling Stone. "I'm just really hopeful with the president's remarks, [and] with Jared Kushner's interest, that we can do something really profound in this area."
But Sessions is still seen as an impediment to the effort, and that's why there's a debate inside the GOP over whether they should narrow their approach and merely focus on a proposal to help former inmates transition back to society, or also include potentially controversial legislation revamping mandatory minimum laws, which would face tougher odds. Still, Booker says you shouldn't do one without the other, because he sees them as two sides of the same coin: One focused on the pipeline causing overflowing prisons; the other on the effort to help those prisoners rejoin their communities. "I don't believe we should do the easy. I think we should do the right, and the right would be doing front end and back end together," Booker says.
Given it's an election year, some vulnerable lawmakers won't support any reforms that would allow convicts out of prison early in an effort to appear tough on crime. That's why Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) is pushing the Prison Reform and Redemption Act.
It's aimed at stemming the nation's high recidivism rate through providing incentives to prisoners to compel them to join programs aimed at getting them ready for the outside world. Those include partnerships with educational institutions, non-profits and private companies so ex-convicts are better prepared to land a job upon release, instead of only being given a Scarlett letter when they leave prison with. That bill doesn't focus on sentencing reform, and Collins says if those provisions get added it will be tougher to get Trump to sign the bill.
"I can agree that there needs to be sentencing reform. There's stuff that we need that we can do, but the question is, what is the already possible? What is the already doable?" Collins tells Rolling Stone.
Collins is from Georgia, which in 2013 implemented similar reforms to what's in his bill, including more mentorship programs and monitoring of former convicts so they can avoid becoming a repeat offender. Other red states, like Texas and South Carolina, have also seen positive results after passing criminal justice legislation, which is why Collins says his legislation has a chance to win over both progressives and the many Tea Party-backed members of Congress.
"It's a money and a moral issue," says Collins. "It's money that we're wasting, money just housing them. But it's a moral issue that I believe that all of them have the chance to redeem themselves to actually have a second chance. So for me this is a very conservative idea."
As Collins tries to drum up support for his bill among his Republican colleagues, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) is trying to build support on his side of the aisle. Like many Democrats, the Brooklyn native wants the final proposal to also include sentencing reform that would severely loosen the nation's strict mandatory minimum requirements for nonviolent offenders.
"We should still try to approach criminal justice reform in the broadest possible fashion," Jeffries tells Rolling Stone. "There is widespread support for sentencing reform and prison reform amongst the American people. And both blue states and red states have made tremendous progress in this area. There's absolutely no political reason for Congress not to tackle an issue that is not controversial and has been embraced by people on the left and the right."
Even though this week the Senate Judiciary Committee was able to overwhelmingly pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act over the vocal complaints of the attorney general, that bill's seen as much more controversial than the narrower proposal focused solely on stemming the nation's high recidivism rate. But Jeffries is still hoping to marry the two and send Trump a bill later this year.
"We have a mass incarceration epidemic in America," Jeffries says. "It's time for that to change. That will require both altering our sentencing laws and getting rid of things like mandatory minimums as well as making sure that people who are currently incarcerated can be successfully reincorporated back into our society."