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Fast Track to Freedom

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ome real-life stories are so improbable that they push the boundaries of the believable. Like the true-to-life tale of a 30-something chassid from Williamsburg who decides to reform the American prison system for the benefit of inmates and their families and hires a team of high-powered lobbyists to successfully shepherd legislation on a seven-year-long serpentine odyssey through the US Congress and the White House.

The naysayers laugh him off — he has neither resources nor political experience. But he’s seen so much suffering when it comes to an incarcerated family member that he’s able to hone in on a specific vision that propels him — through close to a decade of hopes and heartbreaks, congressional infighting, financial losses, and shattered dreams — to slog through the political quagmire.

This past December, it finally happened. And that’s the most recent chapter in the story of Moshe Margareten, a businessman and askan extraordinaire who saw his efforts of nearly a decade bear fruit with the signing into law by President Trump of a prison reform bill called the First Step Act.

The new law’s most important achievement is the creation of a first-ever credit system whereby inmates in federal prisons who participate in rehabilitative programs can earn early release to home confinement. For every three days spent working or attending an educational or vocational program behind bars, inmates will earn one day of early release from prison to a monitored home environment.

Other salient provisions of the bill include an increase in credits awarded for good behavior, resulting in early release to a halfway house and then home confinement, and the ability of an inmate aged 60 and above who has served two-thirds of his sentence to complete the balance of his term in home confinement.

So how does a Monsey-born and bred yungerman team up with a former federal prosecutor in Utah and mega-connected Washington lobbyists to take on the notoriously convoluted D.C. political “swamp” — and win big? Answer: With a strong belief that siyata d’Shmaya accompanies a just cause, along with a large serving of guts and an unfailing can-do attitude.

The seeds of Moshe’s special empathy for the plight of inmates and their families were planted early on. As a young boy, he watched as his father, a prominent Skverer askan who helped build its communities in places like Boro Park and Montreal and single-handedly supported a Monsey kollel, worked to help a neighbor who’d gotten into legal trouble. The elder Margareten paid to take the family’s home out of foreclosure and would come back from visits to his friend in an upstate jail and talk about how they’d sat and cried together.

“This,” Moshe reflects, “had a deep effect on me, the plight of that unfortunate family even more than that of the inmate himself.”

When Moshe was 13, the family moved to Eretz Yisrael, where he learned in Pinsk-Karlin and then in Chernobyl in Bnei Brak. After his wedding at age 20, he and his wife moved back to Williamsburg where they’ve been living ever since, and where Moshe is connected to Skver.

A sense of communal responsibility runs deep in the Margareten family, with a number of Moshe’s siblings being heavily involved in communal chesed organizations like Misaskim, Chaveirim, ATime, and Chesed 24/7. And although he was young in years, Moshe too began throwing himself into thorny intra-communal situations where others might not dare to tread — and discovered his knack for negotiating tough scenarios that seemed hopeless.

“In two cases where for years, the couples hadn’t been able to come together amicably on a get,” he recalls, “I helped them come to terms with each other. When it was over, both sides in the divorce ended up sending me flower bouquets, but, honestly, the months and months of work took so much out of me. I also helped broker a compromise in a decades-long squabble between two chassidishe kehillos over a shul in Williamsburg.”

It can’t just be the shy but winning smile and ever-placid demeanor, or the soft-spoken words with a steely resolve running through them, important as those are to who he is and what he does. There’s a certain hard-to-pinpoint quality about Moshe Margareten that makes believers out of skeptics and friends out of aloof bystanders.

The seeds of desire to help families in trouble sown in Moshe’s youth first began to sprout when, as a newly-married avreich learning in Boro Park’s Gerrer kollel, he read about a prison reform bill sponsored by Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Every year she’d been in Congress, Lee had introduced HR 61, as it was known, calling for a 50% reduction in the sentences of inmates in the federal prison system, which is where most religious Jewish prisoners are incarcerated. But in all those years, she’d never garnered more than a handful of co-sponsors for the legislation.

Learning about this bill fired up Margareten’s long-dormant passion to effect changes in the prison system, and he felt certain he could get Chabad shluchim in various districts to convince their representatives to support HR 61. He tried repeatedly to contact Representative Lee by phone and email and even made the trek one day to her Washington, D.C. office, but he never heard back from her.

Not the sort to be easily deterred, Moshe began thinking in a new direction.  A friend had a relative in the same Maryland prison where the lobbyist Jack Abramoff was doing time, and Moshe transmitted a message to the latter, asking what he thought of hiring a lobbyist to begin a legislative push on prisoners’ issues. Abramoff’s response was succinct but firm: “Yes. Now’s the time.”

Margareten called his friend Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky of Aleph Institute, a Miami-based group affiliated with Chabad that helps address the needs of prisoners and their families, to share his idea. Boyarsky listened intently — and he was in, enthusiastically so. Now they needed an experienced advocate familiar with the hills and valleys of the Washington political terrain, particularly its Republican turf. Democrats had been pushing for years for prison reform; it was the Republicans, concerned about being seen as soft on crime, who would need to be brought on board.

Then someone mentioned to Moshe the Second Chance Act, a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2008, that provided funding for rehabilitation programs in state prisons and allowed federal inmates in the final year of their sentences to serve the first six months at a halfway house and the last six in home confinement.  He and Rabbi Boyarsky spoke with Pat Nolan, head of an organization called Prison Fellowship which had pushed the bill; Nolan recommended they retain one of the people instrumental in the passage of that legislation — Greg Mitchell, a former congressional aide who now headed The Mitchell Group, a D.C. lobbying firm with extensive Republican connections.

The looming question was, of course, how to raise the huge sums needed to hire a lobbyist of Mitchell’s caliber. But like at so many points along the way throughout Moshe Margareten’s long and winding road to success, the answer came from an unexpected place.

Moshe regularly went to visit inmates in the Otisville prison in upstate New York, and that’s where he was in April 2011, the Thursday evening before Pesach. “As I sat on a bench in the visitation room waiting for the fellow I was visiting to enter, a scene unfolded before my eyes that haunts me still to this day: A woman sat with her little children, visiting their Tatty before Yom Tov. From a shopping bag, she took out the Haggados they’d made in school and handed them out, and the youngest child began saying the Mah Nishtanah.

“The mother shifted uncomfortably in her seat, then suddenly began shaking, and finally burst out in uncontrollable sobbing. The entire room was transfixed by this sudden bolt of raw emotion. Then and there, I told myself I would no longer be held back by the question of funding, even if it meant raising these gigantic sums on my own.

“When the fellow I had come to visit entered the room, I told him what had happened and then said, ‘I want to go ahead with a prison reform bill but I’m stalled because of money.’ His family pledged to fund a lobbyist for two months in order to jumpstart things.”



reg Mitchell told Moshe that the Second Chance Act was coming up for reauthorization in Congress, and that the reauthorized bill included a provision for reductions of 33% in the sentences of federal prisoners. Despite zero Republican interest in such an idea at that point, Mitchell asserted there was a good chance of generating enough GOP support for its passage.

It was one thing to dream ambitiously, but the time had come for Margareten to venture out and begin raising the hard cash needed to make it come true. The experience was, in his words, “torture.” For every ten people he’d approach for help, perhaps one would agree to contribute something.

And the other nine, says Moshe, “wouldn’t just refuse to give — they’d often heap verbal humiliation on me. One fellow told me he’d contribute, but only to pay my bills to see a psychiatrist. The truth is he was right — what I was doing was meshugeh. But what could I do? I never stopped thinking about those kids in the Otisville visitation room and all the other families torn to pieces by the absence of their loved ones.”

When the Second Chance reauthorization emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee with a party-line majority of Democrats but not a single Republican vote, Moshe realized the time had come to craft a new criminal justice reform bill, hiring attorney John Van Horn, a specialist in drafting legislation that could attract bipartisan support.

Then, Greg Mitchell floated an idea that would turn out to be a true game changer: The Texas criminal justice system had grappled with the major problem of recidivism — it’s when prison becomes a revolving door, with convicts reentering society upon completing their sentences only to end up back in prison. The best way to counter this phenomenon is through in-prison rehabilitative activities, such as work or education, which increase an inmate’s chances of leading a productive, upstanding life once back home. The reality is, however, that inmates — like everyone else — tend to be unmotivated and short-sighted, and prefer to waste their time behind bars, spending their days sitting around playing cards or watching TV.

And so, in 2008, Texas passed legislation that incentivized inmates: Every day a prisoner spent either working or pursuing some form of vocational training or education would earn him a credit for one day of early release. It wasn’t long before the state began closing prisons due to a drop in the inmate population.

When Greg Mitchell told Moshe he wanted the new bill to follow the Texas model, Moshe was immediately captivated by what he saw as a win-win concept enabling families to get their loved ones home earlier, and prisoners to come home better people. He was all too familiar with cases in which inmates’ motivation and sense of responsibility had so atrophied while in prison that when they emerged, they were psychologically unprepared to resume a normal life routine, creating real difficulties within their families.

“Prison is known as the ‘correctional system,’” he explains, “but does it help people lead better lives when they get out? I know of many cases in which a fellow comes home after so many years away, and what happens? He wakes up in the morning, goes onto the couch, drinks coffee and reads the newspapers and fights with everybody. When they tell him to go get a job, he doesn’t want to after spending his time in prison playing cards and watching television. With the new law though, there will be options for things they can do inside so that they’ll be productive people when they come out. They can work or get a degree or engage in faith-based activities — an inmate can even spend a specific amount of time learning Torah and earn credits for an early return home. The idea is for them to leave prison better, not bitter.”

At this point, Mitchell suggested Margareten bring in lawyer Brett Tolman, a former United States Attorney for Utah. His law enforcement credentials, legislative drafting skills, and close ties to lawmakers like Lee, Hatch, Cornyn, and McConnell in the Senate, and Jason Chaffetz in the House would be prove very valuable to their efforts.

It would be hard to conjure a more unlikely threesome: The former federal prosecutor from Utah, the savvy Washington lobbyist, and the mild-mannered Williamsburg   businessman in full chassidic dress.

Brett Tolman describes Moshe as “one of the more remarkable and most important people in this effort, and I don’t say that lightly. Not only did he do an incredible amount of fundraising, but he was in the trenches coming up with good ideas, studying the U.S. Criminal Code, trying to learn what could help, listening to prisoners, listening to advocates, listening to the law enforcement community. I’m as foreign to him as he is to me, but we looked at each other and sized each other up and said ‘Okay, let’s figure this thing out together.’”


Congressional Stall

The next step before launching a lobbying effort was to secure one Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee as the proposed law’s primary sponsor. Months went by with no such prospect though, and Moshe began to wonder whether he was a man in pursuit of a mirage. But then a call came in from the office of Texas senator John Cornyn, a senior member of the GOP’s Senate leadership, who liked the bill because it mirrored the law that had met with such success in his home state. Shortly after he put his name on it, Utah senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch and Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn signed on too.

Tolman explains that “Democrats had always been supportive on this issue, but we needed to get the conservatives on board, because, almost tragically, the Republican Party bought into the notion that almost the only thing to be done in the area of criminal justice is to increase penalties and lock more people up, and it was very difficult to move away from that mindset. To this day there are some conservatives like Senators Cotton and Kennedy who cannot abandon that old mentality, despite all the supportive data showing that reforms lower recidivism, reduce crime rates, and shrink prison-related costs.”

From the outset, Senator Lee, an early sponsor of the law, and Senator Grassley, who championed it from when he became Judiciary Committee chairman in 2013, made clear the bill would need to include both sentencing reform and prison reform in order to win the necessary bipartisan support. And in fact, the First Step as signed into law does indeed contain some important changes to the sentencing regime. It reduces, for example, a mandatory life sentence for a drug offense to 25 years and a 25-year sentence down to 15. It also ensures that a person with a minor criminal record and a minor role in the distribution of drugs gets a lower sentence than might be dictated by the quantity of narcotics found in his possession.

But just then, the years-long legislative rollercoaster ride took its first sheer drop: Having worked hard to fasten down Republican support, Moshe and his colleagues were taken aback to find they were actually facing significant opposition from Democrats in Congress. “But then we received a call from an Iranian-American woman who was very well-connected to the Clintons,” Moshe says. “She’d heard of our problems recruiting Democrats to our effort and wanted to refer us to long-time Clinton confidants John and Tony Podesta, who ran the Podesta Group, perhaps Washington’s most prestigious lobbying firm. I thanked her for the suggestion but told her I’d been struggling to foot the steep monthly bills for our existing lobbying team, and there was no way I could afford to take on the Podestas. Two days later, as I was driving up to Monsey, the phone rang; it was Tony Podesta on the line. ‘Rabbi, I heard about the wonderful work you’re doing on prison reform. We’d like to help you and we’ll work out a reasonable deal with you.’ That same week, I retained them, and looking back, had I not done so, it’s clear to me this bill would never have seen the light of day.”



he financial burden of paying two sets of lobbyists became overwhelming for Moshe, and the fact that the effort went through numerous starts and stops and near-deaths made it all the more difficult. Out of embarrassment, he avoided asking for donations from family and close friends. But he couldn’t avoid those who had contributed to his efforts in the past.

“Imagine,” Moshe elaborates, “if I received a contribution from a fellow of ten thousand dollars, it meant I had to go to all his simchahs to say mazel tov, but when the bill was stalled and the effort going nowhere, it was beyond embarrassing.

“I was often on the receiving end of all sorts of reactions. Some people would smile nicely and simply say nothing, but others weren’t so kind: ‘Yes, I remember you, the one from that bill… it’s still going on?’ ‘Okay, my ten thousand dollars, nu, nu.’ It was horrible, mortifying. Once, in the grocery, a former donor attacked me loudly: ‘Oh, here’s the baal hachaloimois. Next time you should be careful before you take money from people…’ So I tried to only raise money from people I didn’t know and who I wouldn’t encounter again.”

Moshe recounts one particular fundraising experience, having approached a successful businessman he knew for a significant sum. The latter responded generously, telling him to speak with the person who handled his tzedakah affairs. What Moshe didn’t know was that the moment they parted, the businessman had texted that fellow, “This Margareten guy is dreaming; I just needed to get rid of him. Don’t give him a dime, and don’t even take his calls.”

“But the tzedakah manager never received the message,” Moshe says,  “and I walked away with a very large contribution. For years, he held it against the tzedakah manager for giving me the money, but when he heard the bill had passed, he called him up to say, ‘Thank you for pulling me into this.’”

In 2014, Moshe was in a deeper financial hole than ever, having borrowed huge sums with no prospect for repayment, and friends told him, “You solicited everyone you know in New York. Why don’t you try raising money somewhere else?” He borrowed money for a plane ticket for himself and another ticket plus a hefty fee to bring Brett Tolman from Utah to a major frum out-of-town community. Together they spent several days making the rounds there, but didn’t bring in a single penny.

On the flight back to New York, Moshe sat brokenhearted. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m done.’ It had been four long years, and what did I have to show for it? I had huge debts, had neglected my business in a big way, and my family was none too happy with my involvement. I came home and told my wife, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is I’m through, and I’ll be available to you. The bad news is I didn’t make a dime, and that’s why I’m finished with this.’”

That Shabbos morning, he was walking on the street in Williamsburg when he met a friend who greeted him cheerily, “How was the trip?” Moshe told him what had happened and that the prison reform bill was history. After Shabbos, he got a call from another friend, who told him to email a certain very wealthy philanthropist and describe his financial plight. When the two spoke, the fellow asked him, “What do you need right now?” Moshe detailed what he needed and what it would cost, and the next day a check in that large amount was waiting for him at the man’s office. He was back in the game.

The donors Moshe solicited were not limited to fellow chassidim or even only other frum Jews. In one case, Moshe had been instrumental in helping secure early release from prison for a secular Jewish insurance executive whose wife, who was very ill and undergoing chemotherapy, needed him at her side. Helping resolve problems for the families of prisoners, whether with financial difficulties, health-related issues, or getting their children into schools, has long been part of Moshe’s portfolio of caring, alongside his work in the legislative arena.

And so, grateful for Moshe’s help in securing his early release, the man said, “Rabbi, how can I help you?” First, Moshe suggested he put on tefillin — it was the first time since his bar mitzvah, and as he wound the straps around his frail arm, he wept. Then he introduced Moshe to a very wealthy and politically connected friend who was a fourth-generation Reform Jew. Seeing the scope of the efforts being invested in prison reform by Moshe and his colleagues, the man was deeply moved and became a significant financial backer.

But there was one contributor who would come to play a particularly crucial role in the bill’s passage. Back in December 2012, Margareten and Mitchell had gone to see a young scion of a well-known real estate empire named Jared Kushner, whose personal experience as the son of a former federal inmate made him very sympathetic to their cause. He contributed handsomely and from then on, stayed abreast of the bill’s progress. Eventually, Kushner — by now an influential voice in the White House — would prove pivotal in getting the bill, in Margareten’s words, “into the end zone.”


“Your Rabbi Was Way Ahead”

At various points along the journey, Margareten consulted with Torah leaders. When he first began, he met with the Munkatcher Rebbe, who has been deeply involved in prisoners’ issues for decades, and the Rebbe told him, “Everyone’s going to laugh at you, but just ignore them all and move ahead. Try to keep your involvement quiet so that people don’t come to see this as a specifically Jewish effort.” Later on, the Rebbe helped open channels of funding for him.

Moshe unexpectedly received a call one day informing him the Skverer Rebbe wanted to see him and make a contribution to his effort. Moshe recalls thinking it might be some sort of prank and asked the caller for a number to call him back. “Ten minutes later, I dialed that number and someone answered, ‘Shekel Hakodesh, how can I help you?’ That’s the name of the Rebbe’s personal fund to help support Skverer institutions, which meant the call had been for real. A few days later I received a check for a very helpful sum.

“Up to that point, I had never gone to the Rebbe about my work because, honestly, I felt insecure about it since I knew what I was doing seemed strange. But, of course, the Rebbe knew about it anyway, and he wanted to support it. Much more important to me than the significant amount he gave was the feeling that he was with me.”

In 2016, there was disagreement on the advocacy team about whether to lower the bill’s proposed earned time credit for rehabilitative activity in prison from 33% down to 25%, which some claimed would be a more credible figure.  Moshe brought this question to the Skverer Rebbe, who suggested they employ two separate lobbyists to meet with senators: one advocating a 25% credit, the other making his own visits to lawmakers to argue that only a credit of least 33% would sufficiently incentivize unmotivated inmates to pursue rehabilitation. The Rebbe’s prescience, says Moshe, is responsible for the higher 33% credit contained in the law as ultimately enacted.

There was one more chassidic leader, albeit no longer with us, whose influence made a difference: The Lubavitcher Rebbe. In their lobbying efforts, Moshe and his colleagues often enlisted local Chabad shluchim to help lobby their state’s representatives, and for his meeting with Senator Risch of Idaho, a rock-ribbed conservative who was against any sort of prison reform, Moshe brought the Idaho shaliach into Washington.

They showed the senator a video clip of a talk the Lubavitcher Rebbe delivered at a farbrengen in 770 in which he addresses the Jewish perspective on imprisonment, explaining that prison isn’t a normative punishment in the Torah because a person shouldn’t be confined like animals are. People are meant to be productive, and even when they must be incarcerated, there must be things they can do in confinement to enable them to redeem and rehabilitate themselves. After watching the clip, the senator turned to his visitors and said, “He makes sense — count me as a yes vote on prison reform. Your rabbi was way ahead of me.”


t had been six years since Moshe had first set out in pursuit of his dream, years of sustained advocacy with small victories and advances punctuated by setbacks and disappointments — approvals in committee, followed by failures to bring the bill to a floor vote, and yeas turning into nays and vice versa.

In the waning months of 2016, the bill was approved in the Judiciary Committee by a bipartisan vote of 15–5, and President Obama seemed prepared to sign it. But those five opposing votes were all Republicans, and the ongoing presidential campaign also complicated matters. Republican candidate Trump had attacked the bill on the stump to burnish his law-and-order credentials, and as it became evident he would be the GOP nominee, congressional Republicans began to balk at supporting it.

Even if the bill could pass with the votes of all Democratic senators and some Republicans, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell was unwilling to schedule a vote that would reveal fissures in his caucus. And so, 2016 ended without the bill ever coming to the Senate floor.

The 2017 legislative session opened with Trump now in the White House and Jeff Sessions — who had strenuously opposed the bill while still an Alabama senator — as his Attorney General, it was a particular low point in the bill’s prospects. But ever optimistic, Greg Mitchell and his colleagues kept moving forward. He and Tolman had believed from the very outset that the key to success would lie in balancing the elements of sentencing and prison reform in such a way that both Republicans and Democrats could feel comfortable lending their support.

“The thinking,” Mitchell explains, “was we couldn’t lose more than ten to fifteen Republican votes on this. And in fact, that’s what happened. The bill eventually passed by a commanding margin and only 12 opposing votes, but all 12 were Republicans.”

Among the most important holdouts on the Republican side was Texas senator Ted Cruz, whose credentials on legal issues gave his views added weight. Margareten knew that a key to reaching Cruz might be Nick Muzin, the frum former Cruz aide who was by now himself a D.C. lobbyist. He emailed Muzin to inquire about his fee but just hours later Muzin responded, “If I can get it done with just a few meetings/phone calls, it would be my pleasure to do it pro bono; if I think you need a serious lobbying effort that we can help with, I’ll work out a price for you. Tizkeh lemitzvos.”

Muzin arranged a conference call which included long-time Cruz supporters, prominent Texan rabbinic leaders, influential legal figures like Alan Dershowitz, former attorney general Michael Mukasey, and conservative thought leaders, with multiple speakers covering the issue from personal, religious, moral, policy, and legal perspectives. On the call, the senator listened carefully but was noncommittal. Just over a week later, on December 7 — which, Muzin observes, “was Shabbos Parshas Mikeitz, when we read of Yosef being released from prison” — Cruz announced his support for the legislation.”

With his change of heart and that of a few others, like the bill’s one-time sponsor, John Cornyn, Senate Majority Leader McConnell quickly proceeded to bring the bill to a Senate vote, where it passed with an overwhelming majority of 87–12.


itchell and Margareten both credit Jared Kushner and his White House team of Ja’Ron Smith and Brooke Rollins with finding the sweet spot needed to bridge the partisan divide in the Senate, including enough aspects of sentencing reform to satisfy Dick Durbin, the Senate whip who kept the Democrats united on behalf of the bill, but without losing too many Republicans. And Kushner was, of course, also indispensable in bringing the president around to support the legislation.

The First Step Act has now become the law of the land, its passage one of the rare bipartisan successes in a very fractious political time for the country. As Greg Mitchell looks back on the eight-year odyssey that led up to this victory, he says he has “a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for Moshe Margareten, who is the hero, because he did more than anyone on the entire planet for this cause.

“He took all the responsibility on his own shoulders to raise all the money that was needed from start to finish. He kept getting the donors to give, even during the low points in the journey, telling them not to give up. But some of them did give up and he’d have to go out and find new donors. He put so much blood, sweat, and tears into this, despite his business surely suffering as a result of his involvement. He was also great to work with, the one guy that Brett and I would brainstorm with. Sure, he was a neophyte coming in, but he learned — he was always very reasonable and pragmatic, always listened and understood. There are some others who were unwilling to accept the reality of how Washington works and how long this might take, so they came and went. But not Moshe. He was a true strategic partner, and I would do it again with him.”

The Bureau of Prisons has never before experienced such a fundamental nationwide change to the way it operates, and it says the necessary administrative adjustments will require a minimum of seven months before the law’s provisions can be put in practice. Greg Mitchell notes that unlike the legislative process, the implementation phase of this law is much less amenable to the influence of lobbyists. It will instead be the responsibility of Congress and the White House to make sure that BOP implements the new law in keeping with the intent of Congress, in order to maximize its effect for the inmates who are its intended beneficiaries.

But Moshe Margareten isn’t waiting around. He has already created a group called the Tzedek Association which will monitor the implementation of the law in which so much of his heart and soul is invested. And when he feels worn out by the effort, he goes back to the scene in his mind’s eye: A mother sitting in a drab room far from home, as her little kids, homemade Haggados in hand, spend a few fleeting moments with their prison-garbed Tatty.

And with that, this dreamer of big dreams gets back to work making them a reality.  —

Extraordinary alliances

When the Senate passed the bipartisan First Step Act on December 19, liberal Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois partnered with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and other Republicans to introduce a bill backed by a remarkable coalition of conservative and liberal groups who rarely agree on anything. Mishpacha’s Omri Nahmias spoke with Senator Durbin about his role in getting the bill passed.

Can you share a little bit about what went on behind the scenes of this reform? The mutual work with Jared Kushner, for example — what was that like?

Well, it turned out to be an interesting alliance. Mr. Kushner and I first met about two years ago and he talked about his interest in prison reform because of some family history, and I thought that was a very important undertaking. I asked him to consider the beginning of the process when it came to criminal sentencing and some of the unfairness that was part of it. Over the span of two years, we worked very closely together, creating a bill that dealt with both issues of criminal sentencing and prison reform. And I have to tell you, this created one of the most extraordinary alliances I’ve ever seen in Washington and I’ve been here a few years. We ended up with the support of the Fraternal Order of Police, the Criminal Prosecuting Attorneys Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s not often you find those groups in agreement.

What can we learn from the fact that, in these divisive days in Washington, there was such a strong bipartisan support for this reform?

Well, there was a lot of hard work by cosponsors of this legislation — Mike Lee (R-Utah) was my original cosponsor, and I never saw a person worked so hard to bring Republican senators around to the vote. Chuck Grassley, a Republican of Iowa, became the lead on the issue. I deferred to him because of his position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he was exceptional. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. Cory Booker came to this cause as soon as he arrived in the Senate, something he felt very intentionally about, and he kept those in the center and on the left on board through the whole process. So it was a team effort. And I want to stress that Jared Kushner played an invaluable role, particularly in winning over the president’s support and in convincing many conservative organizations.

Jared Kushner had a family story that motivated him. But from your end, how did you become so passionate about this reform?

I have to tell you, and not many congressmen and senators will say this, but it was because of the worst vote I ever cast in Congress. It was 25 years ago, and as crack cocaine appeared on the scene and scared us to death, we changed the sentencing guidelines and ended up filling American prisons, yet it made  no measurable impact on the problem. The drugs on the street were cheaper than ever. More and more people were using them, and more and more people were being sentenced to prison. So it was clear that this tough approach of 25 years ago didn’t work. It was time for change.

Do you have any statistic-based evidence that this reform is going to work?

In my first bill, called the First Sentencing Act, we followed those who were released early because of our change. We saw there was no increase in recidivism but the opposite — a sense that these people who were released, which allowed them to leave prison years before they were scheduled to, did not increase crime on the streets. It gave them their freedom at a new opportunity at life, and it wasn’t at the expense of safety in our neighborhoods and communities.

Is it worth the risk? Many are afraid of criminals and drug dealers getting back on the street and are asking themselves if America will really be safer with this reform.

I think it will. We still have to go after and prosecute those who are guilty of serious offenses and make sure they pay a heavy price. I haven’t changed on that. But what we’re trying to do is look at the lowest levels of involvement — those who never used violence and who were willing to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. This class of criminal defendants will be given a chance to serve a shorter term and prove that they’ve learned during the course of their incarceration how to avoid crime in the future.  The amount of money wasted on unnecessarily long sentences can now be dedicated to good, effective law enforcement and also to the rehabilitation of those in prison so that they don’t go back to crime after their release. Those will be two effective outcomes of this effort.

The reform is called the First Step, but there is a long way to go to fix the criminal justice system in the US. What do you believe should be the next step?

We’re finding that those who commit crimes at a very early age have usually been exposed to traumatic experiences in their own personal lives. If we can start turning these children around at an earlier stage, their lives will have a better outcome, we’ll have less crime in our own society, and have a safer America.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 745)


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