President Trump on Thursday held a listening session on prison reform which covered how to address mass incarceration in the United States as well as how to reduce the rate of recidivism.
“We will be very tough on crime but we will provide a ladder of opportunity,” Trump told a roundtable that included governors from Georgia, Kentucky and Kansas, criminal justice experts and faith-based leaders.
Trump added that he wants those in prison to be able to contribute to society once they leave.
“Two-thirds of the 650,000 people released from prison each year are arrested again within three years,” he said. “We can help break this viscous cycle through job training, very important, job training, mentoring and drug addiction treatment.”
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who has brought significant prison reform to his state, weighed in, saying “we are good at removing but we need to do more than simply remove people from society.”
Bevin said 95 percent of the nation’s prison population will eventually be released.
“What are we doing as a society, at the federal level, at the state level, at the local levels, what are we doing to ensure that they have been rehabilitated and they can be re-assimilated?”
Bevin asked, “We’re good at removing but we need to do more than simply remove people from society.”
The steps are aimed at reducing the rate of recidivism. As Trump noted, the Justice Department has reported that approximately two-thirds of the more than 650,000 ex-offenders released from prison every year are rearrested within three years.
While the president has sounded a tough-on-crime message during his first year in office, the White House views changes to the prison system as a conservative issue that could potentially gain bipartisan support in a divided Congress.
Trump discussed potential changes to the prison system with lawmakers and Cabinet members at Camp David earlier in the month.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, whose own father spent more than a year behind bars, was part of the listening session though he did not speak when reporters were in the room.
Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, have been building support for bipartisan reform for the past six months.
During that time, Kushner met with prison experts and has reportedly developed a bipartisan proposal to address mass incarceration in the United States, which includes ways to address recidivism.
Brooke Rollins, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told Fox News ahead of the meeting that she’s worked closely with Kushner’s Office of American Innovation and says she’s given them advice on ways to reform the prison system.
In Texas, Rollins, who also serves on Trump’s economic advisory committee, has worked with other advocacy groups on criminal justice reform and has helped shutter eight prisons.
She’s also worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to create programs to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail and helped inmates transition into jobs following their release. She believes she can bring similar results to the national stage.
“I think that the time is so right for really great and significant dialogue on prison reform,” Rollins told Fox News ahead of the meeting.
She added that most of the reforms being discussed involve non-violent offenders, which doesn’t step on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ pledges to crack down on crime.
“His big effort has been on sentencing but we’re talking about prison reform,” she said.
Sessions has taken a strict stance on drugs and violent crimes and has repeatedly threatened to utilize the toughest sentences possible.
One of Sessions’ first orders was to reverse an Obama-era directive phasing out the use of private prisons, an acknowledgement that they may be needed given his aggressive enforcement of drug and immigration laws.
But facing a narrow majority in the Senate, the White House views the issue — along with plans for a sweeping infrastructure bill — as among a handful of areas where Trump could work with Democrats in Congress.
On Thursday, Sessions said the Justice Department “is committed to a reentry program and if we do this right, we can make progress.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.