Politics & Government

Jared Kushner joins campaign to press McConnell on criminal justice reform

In this July 24, 2017 file photo, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington to meet behind closed doors before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In this July 24, 2017 file photo, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington to meet behind closed doors before the Senate Intelligence Committee. AP

Supporters of efforts to improve prison conditions are using their poll of Kentucky voters — and President Trump’s son-in-law — to pressure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into putting legislation up for a vote.

Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to his father-in-law, joined a call Thursday with Sen. Rand Paul and conservative prison reform advocacy groups to tout a poll of Kentuckians that found widespread support among Republicans, Democrats and independents for legislation that would beef up education, vocational training and rehabilitation programs within the federal prison system.

“This is not a red state issue or a blue state issue, this is a real issue that Americans want to see advanced and they want to see politicians in Washington make progress,” Kushner said.

He noted he’s spoken several times with Trump about the First Step Act, a prison reform bill that passed the House in May on a 360 to 9 vote.

“This bill will help a lot of people, but it will also keep our communities safer which is a big priority of the president,” Kushner said, arguing that critics have promoted “misinformation” about the legislation.

But the legislation has been met with divisions in the Senate where critics say it doesn’t address the “front end” problem of longer prison sentences which have fueled decades of growth in the federal prison population.

A Senate proposal would loosen federal sentencing guidelines for repeat non-violent drug offenders and scrap the “three-strike” mandatory life in prison provision, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the proposal a “grave error” and Republican senators have been seeking a compromise that would combine provisions of both bills. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, has been a sharp critic of the efforts, arguing that cutting mandatory minimum sentences for crimes and other criminal justice efforts “endanger public safety.”

A spokesman for McConnell said he discussed the issue last week with Kushner, along with Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Mike Lee, R-Utah. Kushner said on the call he’s had several discussions with senators and is hopeful that a compromise could be reached.

McConnell “made it clear” after the meeting that the legislation won’t come up for a vote before the November election, spokesman Robert Steurer said. He said that although McConnell did not commit to holding a vote, “proponents of the legislation will continue to discuss the issue with their colleagues followed by a whip count after the October session to accurately assess the Conference’s view on the issue. “

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, argued that the bill could get 65 to 70 votes in the Senate.

“This is a no-brainer and this is something where right and left can come together,” said Paul, who has long championed criminal justice reform efforts. “I think it would be good for the public to see us actually working together with Democrats for a change.”

Pollster Robert Blizzard said the poll of 500 people in Kentucky demonstrates that there is widespread support for the issue and no risk for conservatives of being labeled soft on crime. The poll, commissioned by the Justice Action Network, which backs criminal justice reform, found that 70 percent of Kentuckians wanted McConnell to bring what was described in the poll as “President Trump’s prison and sentencing reform bill” to a vote.

“It’s a do no-harm vote,” Blizzard said. “It’s going to do more to help re-election chances and help their standing with voters back home, much more than it’s going to hurt them.”

Holly Harris of the Justice Action Network said the White House had announced that Kushner would travel to Kentucky in October to promote criminal justice reform. But she later said she “jumped the gun” and had misread a text message about people wanting Kushner to travel to Kentucky. The White House did not immediately clarify.

“Especially in places like Kentucky, where we have just been ravaged by the drug epidemic, people don’t want to throw the towel in on the friends and family members,” Harris said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed attendees at the annual Fancy Farm political picnic on Saturday.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark