Criminal-Justice Reform Efforts Brace for Tough Road in Trump Era

Post Date: February 10, 2017

Originally seen on Wall Street Journal. 

Before Kevin Ring took over a prominent criminal-justice reform group, he had to clear a significant hurdle: He needed to get his probation officer’s blessing to interact with felons. Now Mr. Ring faces a possibly even bigger one: the Trump administration.

Mr. Ring, who became president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums on Jan. 1, was initially concerned his promotion might put him at odds with a condition of his supervised release that bars contact with felons. But he caught a break when his probation officer said she wouldn’t object to his work.

He will continue to need all the breaks he can get as the criminal-justice reform movement he will help lead faces greater scrutiny in the new era ushered in by President Donald Trump.

“Wow…just wow,” was the opening line of FAMM’s letter to donors after Mr. Trump’s surprise victory in November. “At the federal level, the prospects for reform certainly have decreased in the wake of last night’s results,” the note continued.

Though a bipartisan push to overhaul the federal criminal-justice system fell short in 2016, reform groups took solace in President Barack Obama’s efforts to mitigate what he considered to be unfair sentences doled out during decades of strict drug laws. Mr. Obama granted a record 1,715 commutations during his time in office—including a final batch during his last 24 hours on the job. The total exceeds the number of commutations granted by the last 13 presidents combined.

But the ascent of Mr. Trump—and his choice for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.)—suggests rougher terrain ahead despite Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley’s (R., Iowa) plan to revive the reform push.

Mr. Trump rarely spoke explicitly about criminal justice on the campaign trail, but Mr. Sessions, a former prosecutor, is a staunch opponent of shortening prison sentences further, FAMM’s focus over its more than 25-year history.

The incoming attorney general said during his recent confirmation hearing that he opposed bipartisan criminal-justice reform efforts because he is seeing worrisome trends. “I was concerned about what we’re seeing, beginning to see, is a rise in crime and, at the same time, a decline in sentences,” Mr. Sessions said. “I felt we should slow down a bit before we go further and make sure we’re not making a mistake.”

Mr. Ring, 46 years old, has a plan B: FAMM will broaden its mission beyond sentencing reform to include prison reform more broadly, including everything from in-prison education to mental health.

The hope is that such efforts could appeal to tough-on-crime lawmakers eager to reduce repeat offenses.

Mr. Ring’s allies say he’s well-positioned to make that case, in part because he is so well-known to Capitol Hill Republicans. “People can’t say he’s some left-wing crazy,” said Pat Nolan, director of the criminal-justice reform project at the American Conservative Union Foundation.

In 1998, as a lawyer for then-Senator John Ashcroft (R., Mo.), Mr. Ring successfully pushed a bill imposing harsher sentences on methamphetamine trafficking—a move he now deeply regrets.

 

The following year he went to work for Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and in 2011 Mr. Ring was sentenced to 20 months in prison for his role in a bribery scheme to provide officials perks including vacations, meals and event tickets. He entered a federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md., in 2014 after an appeal failed.

Mr. Ring said he was struck by how unprepared his fellow inmates were to re-enter society. “I was sitting in prison with people who didn’t know what an app was, but they’d say, ‘I want to get into stock trading when I get out,’ ” he said.

In July 2015, several months after his release, Mr. Ring, then a director at FAMM, returned to Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to address that issue by improving prison rehabilitation programs. Cumberland, for example, offered a current events course taught by an inmate who was an anti-American Nigerian swindler, Mr. Ring told a House committee.

Jill Tyson, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said the agency is proud of the work it has done to help inmates re-enter society. She declined to comment on Mr. Ring’s testimony.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ring continues to deal with the repercussions of his run-in with the criminal-justice system. While the judge overseeing his case recently commended the “valuable societal contributions” he is making at FAMM, she denied his request to end probation early because he hadn’t finished his community-service hours.

Mr. Ring’s probation is currently set to expire in December 2017.