Kim Kardashian West visits White House amid bipartisan push for prison reform

President Donald Trump posted this photo after meeting with Kim Kardashian in the Oval Office on May 30, 2018. (Twitter)

Kim Kardashian West entered the White House on Wednesday afternoon to meet with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, about criminal justice reform while the future of legislation addressing the issue in Congress remained uncertain despite bipartisan support.

Kardashian West is pushing for a pardon for Alice Marie Johnson, a low-level drug offender who is more than 20 years into a life sentence. Kushner, who has discussed the matter with the reality TV star previously, is spearheading the Trump administration’s broader push to implement prison reform.

While Press Secretary Sarah Sanders would not confirm details of the meeting beforehand, President Trump tweeted a photo afterward showing he met with Kardashian West as well.

"Great meeting with @KimKardashian today, talked about prison reform and sentencing," he wrote.

Johnson was convicted of money laundering and drug conspiracy in 1997 and sentenced to life without parole. She admitted to acting as a go-between for dealers, but she denied personally selling drugs. For supporters of sentencing reform, she has become a prime example of excessive punishments imposed on nonviolent drug offenders.

Since learning about Johnson’s case on Twitter, Kardashian West has become a vocal advocate for her release and for criminal justice reform in general. She has recently applauded Kushner for his work on the issue and expressed hope that she would be able to make her case to Trump.

“I would explain to him that, just like everybody else, we can make choices in our lives that we’re not proud of and that we don’t think through all the way,” she told Mic in a recent interview.

Kardashian West, who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, dismissed criticism of her willingness to work with the Trump administration, saying she will do whatever it takes to help Johnson.

“I’m just focused on criminal justice reform and helping one person at a time," she said. "And so far, the White House has been really receptive to my calls, and I’m grateful for that. And I’m not going to stop that because people personally don’t like Trump.”

Kardashian West is one of many who have found themselves aligned with unexpected allies on prison reform, an issue that advocates say cuts across traditional partisan divides.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the House of Representatives last week passed the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person (FIRST STEP) Act by a 360-59 margin. Co-sponsored by Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Douglas Collins, R-Ga., the bill deals largely with programs and provisions aimed at rehabilitating inmates and preventing recidivism upon their release.

“This is an area where both liberals and conservatives can find common ground even if it’s for different reasons,” said Molly Gill, vice president of policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

“It’s something that is common sense,” said Derek Cohen, director of conservative reform group Right on Crime. If an inmate is eventually going to be released anyway, they and their community benefit from efforts to encourage rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

Van Jones, a former Obama administration official and frequent critic of President Trump, welcomed the opportunity to participate in a recent White House roundtable on the subject. He told CNN afterward it would be “the definition of insanity” to not be open to a reasonable compromise.

“Some people are saying if we can’t get everything … we’ll just take nothing. We said ‘everything or nothing’ under Obama and we wound up with nothing,” he said.

At the White House event, Trump promised to sign any legislation Congress passes on the issue.

“Prison reform is an issue that unites people from across the political spectrum,” Trump said at the time. “It’s an amazing thing. Our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens.”

Meanwhile, some reliable Trump supporters on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., have proven resistant to embracing the president’s call to action on prison reform. A Cotton spokesperson told the Hill he has “concerns with provisions in the bill pertaining to lenient treatment for heroin and fentanyl traffickers.”

FIRST STEP would provide $50 million per year for five years to fund education and rehabilitation programs in federal prisons, allow inmates to earn credit toward release for participating in those programs, and increase the use of halfway houses and home confinement for the final stretch of some inmates’ sentences.

Additional elements include requiring that inmates be confined within 500 miles of home, that female inmates not be shackled during childbirth and recovery, and that women be provided with more female health care products.

“There are some real tangible things in the bill that mean a lot to prisoners and should mean a lot to the rest of us too,” said Gill, who stressed that the FIRST STEP Act is far from perfect.

In addition to not addressing sentencing, Gill said the bill lacked provisions on voting rights, bail reform, and policing reform, but it provides funds for important programs and it could get some inmates home sooner.

“That is priceless to families that have been apart for a long time,” she said.

Cohen was critical of those who suggest bringing inmates closer to home and attempting to facilitate successful reentry to their families and communities is not worth doing without sentencing reform.

“I have to say that particular assessment that it doesn’t do enough, I find galling personally,” he said.

There are some sentencing reforms he would support and changes he wants to see on civil asset forfeitures, but he does not believe this bill is the right vessel for those.

“I think overall one of the best features of the act is it’s pragmatic and it’s passable,” Cohen said. “There are areas for improvement but the authors have worked to get it to a place where a very, very broad coalition of legislators can support it.”

Even some critics of the bill acknowledge that it includes significant positive changes.

“There’s a lot to like about any bill that helps people in prison find ways to reenter society, simultaneously reducing recidivism,” said Ronal Serpas, executive director of Law Enforcement Leaders and former New Orleans police chief.

Serpas argued it makes more sense to address prison reform and sentencing reform at the same time, pointing to a separate Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that includes changes in both areas as an example of a more effective approach. He was not critical of those who support FIRST STEP, though.

“You don’t want to say it’s this way or no way,” he said.

Others fighting for sentencing reform say the House bill does not represent real progress and warn it could be used as an excuse to avoid tackling the bigger issues with the justice system. Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice, called it “piecemeal improvement masquerading as real reform” in a statement.

According to Sakira Cook, senior counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, FIRST STEP as currently drafted could do more harm than good.

“In our view, this doesn’t do anything because much of it hinges on too many variables that do not exist,” she said.

Some of the education and rehabilitation programs it authorizes funding for are not in place. The attorney general is given broad discretion on implementation of some provisions, including the risk assessment tools. There is already not enough space in halfway houses for the inmates awaiting release to them, and the Bureau of Prisons lacks resources to support broader home confinement.

“Ultimately, we need a comprehensive package,” she said. “Sentencing reform is missing. That’s what we know will stop the influx of people going into the system in the first place.”

While the FIRST STEP Act passed with overwhelming support in the House, a companion bill in the Senate may not even make it to the floor for a vote this year. The Senate version introduced by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., has bipartisan backing, but so does Grassley and Durbin’s more comprehensive legislation.

Grassley has so far refused to get behind any bill that deals exclusively with prison reform. Durbin told Politico earlier this month that supporters want a floor vote on their bill before they consider backing more narrow prison reforms.

“I would actually say the Grassley bill covers a lot of good and necessary fixes,” Cohen said. “The problem is some of those fixes aren’t consensus reforms and they tend to have detractors for different reasons across the political spectrum.”

With an already-crowded legislative agenda leading up to the November midterm elections, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has shown no indication he intends to allow a vote on either bill.

“Sen. Cornyn and Sen. Grassley are really on the same side here…,” said Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at the Sentencing Project. “I just think there’s got to be enough pressure put on the majority leader to move it forward.”

Democrats and progressives who support the FIRST STEP Act have argued that those fighting against the bill must temper their expectations when dealing with a White House, Justice Department, and congressional majority that oppose sentencing reforms.

“We have a Republican president. Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Senate,” Rep. Jeffries wrote in a public letter to senators who opposed his bill. “While the Senate authors of the opposition letter support the all or nothing approach, the Majority Leader apparently does not. Those are the facts.”

According to Gill, justice reform advocates face a “tough environment” in Washington and they may need to live with getting as much as they can to help inmates and families today.

“It’s hard to hear from prisoners every day who say, ‘This really helps me and my family’ and say, ‘Well, we should say no to it because it doesn’t have everything we want,’” she said.

However, Cook said lawmakers should be trying to solve the problem, not just doing what they think is politically tenable.

“Any incremental change must be meaningful and must have the most impact it can have in that political moment, and this bill falls far short,” she said of the FIRST STEP Act.

Advocates have been heartened by Kushner’s interest in fixing the justice system, which is driven by his own father’s incarceration over a decade ago.

“Having a loved one go to prison changes your views on the criminal justice system pretty quickly,” Gill said.

Kushner’s focus has been a pleasant surprise for those troubled by Trump’s tough-on-crime rally rhetoric and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ hardline policies.

“I have to say, during the campaign and the rhetoric coming from then-candidate Trump and knowing Jeff Sessions’ views…I was very concerned traction for change was going to be minimal,” Gotsch said.

Though it has been sneered at by some on social media, advocates say Kardashian's White House visit is another sign that reform remains a priority for Trump, and if he agrees to pardon Alice Johnson, it could indicate an openness to addressing the plight of those serving life in prison for drug offenses.

“I’m really excited if that’s something he’s willing to do,” Gotsch said.

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