If you blinked during the president’s first State of the Union address, you might have missed his brief nod to the idea of reforming American prisons. “As America regains its strength, opportunity must be extended to all citizens,” Trump told lawmakers. “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 at life.”
Criminal-justice reform is backed by forces as disparate as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Koch brothers’ network of nonprofit groups. But Trump isn’t among its many proponents. The president instead campaigned on reversing a growing crime wave, vowed in his inaugural address to stop “American carnage,” and tapped tough-on-crime hardliner Jeff Sessions as attorney general.
So why the prison reform shout-out tonight? The credit probably lies with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a free-floating adviser in the White House. Criminal-justice reform is among the many issues he’s taken an interest in, holding meetings with legislators and even persuading his father-in-law to take part in a roundtable on the subject earlier this month.
But Trump’s interest in criminal-justice reform is reportedly limited: Reducing mandatory minimums and over-criminalization will be a tough sell, while programs to help prisoners re-enter society and find jobs could find a receptive audience in the White House. His administration has also already taken steps to cut back on education programs in federal prisons while ramping up prosecutions and tougher sentences. It would be a Nixon-in-China moment if Trump genuinely tried to combat mass incarceration—which is to say, it’s highly unlikely.