President Trump presided over a roundtable discussion on prison reform Thursday, vowing to advance an agenda that's both tough on crime and strong on rehabilitation and re-entry for offenders.
The talks highlighted job training, one-on-one mentoring, drug-addiction treatment and assistance for the high number of female inmates who are pregnant or have young children.
"We can help break this vicious cycle," Mr. Trump said, referring to the 77 percent of offenders who return to prison within five years of release.
"We support our law enforcement partners, and we're working to reduce crime and put dangerous offenders behind bars," he said. "At the same time, we want to ensure that those who enter the justice system are able to contribute to their communities after they leave prison, which is one of many very difficult subjects we're discussing, having to do with our great country."
Prison reform had some bipartisan backing during the Obama administration, but those efforts slowed when Mr. Trump took office with a law-and-order mandate and picked a tough-on-crime senator, Jeff Sessions, to be his attorney general.
State and federal prisons held about 1.5 million inmates at the end of 2016, according to the latest count available by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That figure is 25 percent of the world's prisoners; the U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population.
The administration's prison reform agenda was spearheaded for the past six months by White House adviser Jared Kushner, who is Mr. Trump's son-in-law and has been criticized for his left-leaning influence in the Oval Office.
Mr. Sessions commended Mr. Kushner's leadership on the issue and pledged to advance the agenda.
"Frankly, we got a report late last year that the [prison] money isn't being spent well," said the attorney general. "Our new prison commissioner is committed to doing a better job on reentry programs and job-training programs. And so, if we do this right, I think we can make progress."
The reforms cut across partisan lines, addressing problems related to federal spending, crime and mass incarceration.
"It was a really really encouraging day," said Brooke Rollins, president of the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation and a participant in the discussion.
"The president was extremely engaged," she told The Washington Times. "We just had a great discussion on why it makes a lot of sense for this White House and this team to take leadership on an issue that is bipartisan, that everyone can agree on, and most importantly, can better millions of peoples' lives and make our streets safer."
Ms. Rollins' think tank worked with other advocacy groups to help close eight prisons in Texas in the last decade. During that time, Texas' crime rated fell 31 percent even as the state's population rose by about 19 percent.
Also at the table were Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, both Republicans who successfully implemented prison reforms in their states.
"We are good at removing, but we need to do more than simply remove people from society," said Mr. Bevin.
Another participant, American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, said prison reform was an area ripe for bipartisanship.
"This is one of the issues that people from the community I spend a lot of time with - conservatives - are focused on. I also think there's people on the other side of the political spectrum that have a heart and want to make sure that people's lives can be put back together," he said.
Mr. Schlapp said the economic uptick since Mr. Trump took office would help cut recidivism.
"People need to have a job. They need to be able to get hired. They need to feel the pride and the ownership of a job. And the fact that this economy is rolling, and that these regulations and taxes and everything are going in the right direction, it's giving hope to a lot of people. So that's the first step," he said.