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Trump administration to boost budget for criminal justice law after complaints from advocates

President Trump speaks at a celebration of the First Step Act, a criminal justice lawthat reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent offenders, at the White House on Monday.
President Trump speaks at a celebration of the First Step Act, a criminal justice lawthat reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent offenders, at the White House on Monday. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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President Trump, eager to tout bipartisan accomplishments in a sharply polarized Washington, feted his months-old criminal justice law with an elaborate celebration Monday — while the White House and Congress come under renewed pressure from advocates to adequately fund the programs it created. 

The passage of the First Step Act in December marked one of Trump’s most significant bipartisan achievements in his first two years — as congressional Democrats, Republicans and the administration coalesced behind legislation that reduces mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent offenders while creating programs intended to cut down on an inmate’s likelihood of committing new crimes once released.

Yet criminal justice advocates were alarmed last month when the administration’s budget proposal requested only $14 million to implement the new law in the upcoming fiscal year — a number that fell far short of the $75 million per year outlined by the First Step Act. The low figure was in part because the budget process wrapped up before the legislation was signed into law in December, one administration official said.

In the past few days, the administration has quietly revised that figure upward to about $147 million, which would include funding to implement not only the new law but also related prisoner-rehabilitation expenses, according to advocates. 

A White House official confirmed Monday that the administration plans to ask for $147 million in the next budget year.

The Justice Department, which oversees implementation of the law, said the current budget proposal asks for $16.5 million for implementing the First Step Act but noted that “additional funding will be necessary.”

“My administration intends to fully fund and implement this historic law,” Trump told a crowded East Room packed with advocates, lawmakers and people who have benefited from the legislation. “It’s happening, and it’s happening, fast.”

Flanked by people who have been released under the law, Trump said 16,000 inmates have already enrolled in drug treatment programs through the law.

Advocates of the First Step Act are pleased that the administration has revisited its original budget request.

“It’s clear that they’re actually trying to increase the amount that they will be getting,” said Jessica Jackson, the national director and co-founder of #Cut50, a criminal justice advocacy group that pushed for passage of the First Step Act. She said she believed the $147 million figure was sufficient and that the “administration takes this very seriously.” 

Both the House Appropriations and House Budget committees could not confirm the $147 million number, and the change will probably require the administration to send lawmakers a budget amendment with the revised figures, according to an aide for the appropriations panel.

More than once in recent days, Trump has walked back his own administration’s budget figures for broadly popular or politically significant programs amid public pressure.

His administration initially proposed zeroing out federal support for the Special Olympics, but Trump reversed that late last week following sustained public backlash. 

And during a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., last week, Trump announced that he would back full funding for an initiative to clean up the Great Lakes despite the fact that his budget slashed money for the effort by at least 90 percent from the current $300 million level.

The administration’s March budget identified just $14 million for expenses related to the First Step Act requested for the “development of new and innovative pilot programs designed to address the needs of individuals incarcerated in Federal prisons.”

“It could’ve been an oversight,” speculated Marc Levin, the vice president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “The administration’s been trying to rein in federal spending overall which is admirable, but what we found at the state level is if we don’t invest in alternatives to prison or reentry programs, then we aren’t able to break the reentry cycle.”

Advocates made their discontent known once the Trump administration’s budget figure for the First Step Act was unveiled in mid-March. 

“We were deeply frustrated,” Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, said of the initial $14 million figure. “I think it just shows that, again, this is just the beginning of this journey.”

Years in the making, the First Step Act significantly scaled back certain sentencing laws — such as the so-called three strikes penalty for drug felonies, which was cut from a mandatory life behind bars to 25 years. It also retroactively limited the disparity in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine offenses, a gap that advocates say disproportionately punished African Americans.

The prison overhaul allowed certain nonviolent offenders to earn time credits if they participate in programs aimed at reducing recidivism, while implementing other changes in federal prisons such as banning shackling of pregnant women and allowing some elderly and ill inmates to be released early.

“Obviously, it’s a major undertaking so there’s bound to be some challenges,” Levin said. But “the White House is really committed to making this work.”