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Trump Celebrates Criminal Justice Overhaul, but His Budget Barely Funds It

Category: Political News,Politics

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Monday is expected to host about 300 guests, including convicted felons, at the White House for the “First Step Act Celebration,” a party intended to bring attention to a rare piece of bipartisan legislation he passed last year, and which he plans to highlight on the campaign trail.

The East Room fete will cap a day of events dedicated to overhauling the criminal justice system, an issue that agencies across the government have been asked to elevate. The labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, is expected to participate in a panel on work force development. Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is to lead a session about prisoner re-entry. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, will weigh in on a session dealing with incarcerated women. Kim Kardashian, the reality star, was even invited to participate in the panels and the party, but couldn’t attend.

Months after the legislation passed, and amid foreign policy blunders and a defeat on funding a wall along the southern border, Mr. Trump’s administration is putting the issue front and center.

But some activists who helped work on the legislation — which would expand job training and early-release programs, and modify sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders — have expressed concern that Mr. Trump is more attuned to the political opportunities the law offers him, rather than with ensuring it is enacted effectively.

Despite the high-profile party and round tables — and the White House releasing a presidential proclamation declaring April “second chance month” — Mr. Trump’s budget, released last month, listed only $14 million to pay for the First Step Act’s programs. The law passed in December specifically asked for $75 million a year for five years, beginning in 2019. The funding gap was first reported by The Marshall Project.

Advocates participating in the events at the White House on Monday said they were hoping that officials would publicly address questions about funding the program.

“The answer is a resounding yes. We’re fully committed to doing that,” said Ja’Ron Smith, a White House adviser who has worked extensively on the First Step Act implementation, referring to the funding.

In a budget justification document, the Bureau of Prisons, which operates under the Justice Department, said that it had not concluded how much money would be required to put the First Step Act into effect. But it goes on to say that fulfilling the law is a “priority” and that the Bureau of Prisons’ budget for re-entry activities “will be prioritized to fully fund the requirements of the act.” The document also noted that the prison bureau plans to dedicate $147 million in the 2020 fiscal year to First Step Act-related activities, which includes the cost of expanding halfway housing, the cost to relocate people and $85 million for the Second Chance Act grant program, which aids states and nonprofits in reducing recidivism.

Despite the assurances that the changes remain a budget priority, questions about funding have advocates on the issue concerned.

“The First Step Act cannot fulfill its promise of turning federal prisons toward rehabilitation and preparing men and women to come home job-ready if it is not fully funded,” said Jessica Jackson Sloan, national director of #Cut50, a prisoner advocacy group that worked closely with the White House to get the legislation passed. Ms. Sloan said the group has been meeting with appropriators and talking to White House officials for months “to ensure that the proper funding is requested and appropriated.”

Some activists have been more willing to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt, noting that the lower funding level for 2019 could be because First Step programs are not expected to be up and running until the end of August, less than two months before the end of the federal fiscal year.

But others who have worked on the issue said that it remained to be seen whether the White House would push for full funding when it comes time to hammer out appropriations in a spending bill, and whether there would be an effort to make the Justice Department comply with it.

“I hope that the president’s budget has been amended to specifically fund First Step, but there is so much that needs to be done after that,” said Holly Harris, the executive director of Justice Action Network, which has worked with a bipartisan group on criminal justice overhaul efforts. “We need the president to lean in hard on his allies in Congress.”

Ms. Harris noted that her group continued “to be skeptical” that officials at the Justice Department would prioritize the issue. It was not a priority for Jeff Sessions, the first attorney general in the Trump administration, who fought Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, on making it one. His successor, William P. Barr, however, said in his confirmation hearing that he would fully implement and support the law. But advocates of the legislation remain skeptical of that pledge. And Mr. Barr has met with Mr. Kushner at the White House and understands that it is a priority for top officials, White House officials said.

Mr. Kushner helped persuade the president to back the measure last year, by assuring him that it had the backing of conservatives and that it was also popular with African-American voters, whose support for the president was anemic in his 2016 campaign.

Ms. Harris said that Mr. Trump’s public comments make clear he “sees the political viability of this issue.”

At a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., last week, Mr. Trump described the First Step Act as legislation that politicians had been trying to do “for so many years.”

He added a dig at his opposition: “While we are pushing and pursuing all of these common-sense policies to advance the common good for our citizens, Democrats are pushing a cynical and destructive agenda of radicalism, resistance and revenge.”

The kickoff party on Monday will also offer Mr. Trump an opportunity for a photo-op with convicted felons, many of whom are African-American, as his campaign advisers want him to expand his appeal beyond his hard-core base.

Many Democratic lawmakers and prison advocacy groups were happy to work with the Trump administration on the legislation, despite early skepticism about Mr. Trump’s commitment to the issue.

“But what has to accompany that, obviously, is ensuring that the bill is implemented,” Ms. Harris said.

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