Trump gives Kelley Paul’s push for criminal justice reform a major boost

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Criminal Justice Reform

Follow all of our coverage of Washington’s plan to overhaul the federal criminal justice system, based on reforms Texas, Kentucky and Georgia implemented at the state level.

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For Kelley Paul, improving the nation’s criminal justice system is a family affair.

Her husband, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, has been a leading Republican champion of efforts to curb mandatory sentencing. His father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, has been pushing the cause for decades.

Now Kelley Paul has become a major advocate, meeting with senators and anyone who will listen in hopes of passing legislation to expand treatment opportunities for federal prisoners.

On Wednesday morning, as supporters hoped for an endorsement from President Donald Trump, she appeared on one of his favorite shows, “Fox & Friends,” to make her pitch.

“This has support on both sides of the aisle,” Paul said. “President Trump has been a leader on this, Ivanka and Jared Kushner as well. I think it’s just incredible that we may finally take a leap forward.”

At the White House Wednesday, Trump backed the effort, saying it had support from both Democrats and Republicans. He told a group of supporters the legislation “will make our communities safer and give former inmates a second chance of life after they’ve served their term.”

The legislation would boost rehabilitation programs for federal prisoners and give judges more discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders, particularly for drug offenses.

The House approved a prison reform bill in May, but the Senate package makes additional changes and adds a sentencing component.

The president insisted the legislation is fine with tough on crime conservatives, saying he got calls from “some of the toughest, strongest law enforcement people.”

He wished the members of Congress luck in getting the legislation passed.

“I’ll be waiting with a pen,” Trump told the group, which included Sens. Paul and South Carolina Republicans, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott.

Advocates and lawmakers said Trump’s approval helps the push for the most significant criminal justice overhaul in decades., perhaps during Congress’ current lame duck session. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, though, cautioned that the chamber is running out of days to accomplish its goals.

Congress is meeting this week and plans to stay in session through mid-December. Republicans now control both chambers, but in January Democrats will run the House.

“Kelley was our secret weapon, we brought her in as the closer,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, a leading advocacy group. “She’s passionate and powerful and she can get some of the meetings that it’s difficult for the average advocate to land.”

Trump had earlier taken notice of Paul. At a rally in Lexington last month for Rep. Andy Barr, R-Kentucky, the president urged more television appearances for Kelley Paul.

“She has become the biggest star in the family,” Trump said.

In an interview earlier this fall, Paul said her husband and father-in-law’s advocacy “opened my eyes to the extent of how bad our system is broken and how people are suffering through that.”

She noted her father had opposed the war on drugs in the 1980s, warning that it was a mistake to lock up non-violent addicts.

“And I think we’ve seen the war on drugs be an abysmal failure, and now we have a country with the highest incarcerated rate in the world,” she said. The U.S. incarceration rate fell in 2016 to its lowest level in 20 years, according to the Department of Justice. Despite the drop, the United States locks up a larger share of its population than any other country.

Paul, a writer, said she got involved in the issue after speaking with Harris about her experience talking with women in a shelter in New Jersey where Paul had purchased art work to illustrate her 2015 book about friendships.

“Like many suffering from homelessness, they have issues with addiction and violence and several were formerly incarcerated and I learned a lot from their stories,” Paul said. Harris invited her to speak at a policy forum to address female incarceration and Paul was hooked.

“It’s always been an issue I felt strongly about and now I’m being given an opportunity to really help amplify this message and hopefully move some legislation forward,” said Paul, who has served as a key adviser for her husband’s bids for the Senate and presidency.

She noted she has a unique position as a constituent of McConnell, R-Kentucky, who told reporters that there’s still not agreement.

He said he told the bill’s backers they must have a deal before he can determine whether there is enough support to put it up for a vote.

“We don’t have a whole lot of time left,” McConnell said, noting there are “other things that absolutely have to be accomplished,” including funding the government and passing a bill detailing farm policy.

Paul said she believes it’s possible to land the legislation, and her husband told reporters Tuesday that he believes the votes are there.

“People say there’s not enough bipartisanship in Washington, D.C., and yet this is the one issue that the right and the left come together on,” she said. “You have evangelical Christians who believe in redemption and forgiveness and you have people who realize incarcerating people for addiction or drug abuse is just exploding our prisons.

“I’m a conservative and conservatives love to talk about big government,” she said. “Well, this is the ultimate form of big government.”

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, has been a critic of the efforts, arguing that the plan’s cuts in mandatory minimum sentences for crimes and other criminal justice efforts “endanger public safety.”

Lesley Clark:202-383-6054; @lesleyclark