Trump Calls for New Focus on Finding Jobs for Former Prisoners

April 2, 2019 Updated: April 4, 2019

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump said on April 1 that he wants to follow up on criminal justice reform with efforts that help federal inmates find jobs after they leave prison with a Second Step Act.

Congress passed legislation last year called the First Step Act that gave judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders and boosts prisoner rehabilitation efforts. The effort drew strong support from Republicans and Democrats worried that mandatory minimum laws had generated unfair sentences in many drug-related cases.

Trump said Americans with criminal backgrounds are unemployed at rates up to five times the national average, which stood at 3.8 percent in February.

He said that a Second Step Act will focus on “successful re-entry and reduced unemployment for Americans with past criminal records.” His goal is to cut that unemployment rate for ex-prisoners to single digits within five years.

The president was short on details about what future legislation would include, but the White House said Trump’s budget for the next fiscal year proposes more than $500 million to help prisoners succeed after their release.

“When we say ‘hire American,’ we mean all Americans, including former inmates who have paid their debt to society,” Trump said.

Trump was joined on stage by a handful of former prisoners who have been helped through the First Step Act. He asked each of them to speak, sparking a unique level of spontaneity, sadness and cheer in the White House East Room as they recounted their experience.

Matthew Charles and President Trump
Matthew Charles, who was released from from federal prison after serving 20 years for selling crack cocaine, joins President Donald Trump for a First Step Act celebration in the East Room of the White House on April 1, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Gregory Allen noted that two months ago, he was in a prison cell and now he was telling his story at the White House, calling it an example of what would “make America great again,” Allen said, borrowing from the president’s trademark phrase as the audience laughed and applauded.

Gregory Allen and President Trump
Gregory Allen, who served more than eight years in prison, thanks President Donald Trump during a First Step Act celebration in the East Room in Washington on April 1, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

First Step Act

President Donald Trump signs the First Step Act and the Juvenile Justice Reform Act in the Oval Office of the White House Dec. 21, 2018 in Washington. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Trump signed into law a landmark criminal justice reform bill dubbed the First Step Act, on Dec. 21, last year.

The Act gave judges more discretion when sentencing drug and lower-level offenders, while also reducing the recidivism risks of prisoners by expanding on programs such as job training. It passed the House of Representatives the day before by a landslide vote of 358 to 36.

Earlier the Senate had pushed the bill—that only affects federal prisoners—through with a similar show of support by 87–12. Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner had both lobbied for the measure.

“Everybody said it couldn’t be done. They said the conservatives won’t approve it, they said the liberals won’t approve it,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “They said nobody’s going to approve it, everybody’s gonna be against it. It’s been many many years … and nobody came close.”

Co-sponsored by more than a third of the Senate, the act received support from both Democrats and Republicans. It aims to make the federal criminal justice system fairer, reduce overcrowding, and save taxpayer dollars. Certain mandatory minimum sentences were also adjusted.

At the signing event, Trump thanked ranking members from both sides of the aisle and commended the bipartisan effort. At one point, he invited his son-in-law to make remarks, adding that “Jared has worked so hard on this.”

Kushner, who spoke for several minutes said that in addition to the many people in the room, “This really took an army of a lot of other people.” He also spoke about the people drawn to the issue by the “pain of the past.”

“We were their lobbyists,” Kushner said, while describing the people unable to fight for themselves.

Ivanka Trump joked at the times that now the bill had been signed, she might see Jared more often. “Maybe I’ll get a little bit more time with him now.”

Under the bill, maximum penalties are maintained for violent felons and drug kingpins. But mandatory minimum penalties are reduced for others. Prisoners can earn time credits toward their release to halfway houses or home confinement.

The First Step Act, that took years in the making, represented an easing of tough, law-and-order minimal sentencing requirements imposed on judges that stemmed from a 1980s drive to clamp down on an epidemic of crack cocaine and other illegal drug use in the United States. It was the product of much effort from both liberal and conservative advocacy groups, as well as civil right advocates.

The Associated Press and The Epoch Times reporter Bowen Xiao contributed to this report.