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President discusses 'vicious cycle' of ex-prisoners struggling

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Although President Trump is better known for his "tough on crime" rhetoric, he recently advocated for better services for prisoners once they're released. On a Jan. 11 roundtable with lawmakers and policy wonks, Trump said he wants to "break this vicious cycle" of recidivism that, for many, involves trouble reentering society once their sentences are served.

"We have a great interest in helping them turn their lives around, get a second chance, and make our community safe," Trump said at the roundtable.

According to the Justice Department, 650,000 people are released from the corrections system each year. As many as two-thirds of them are re-arrested within three years.

Improving the re-integration process for former prisoners is a bipartisan issue. Under the Obama administration, representatives of both major parties were working on several pieces of that overall puzzle. One was a reconsideration of how drug offenders are sentenced -- whether even low-level, nonviolent offenders should be given harsh, mandatory-minimum sentences, for example. Another was a look into the draconian conditions many prisoners face behind bars.

Under the current administration, the effort has been drawn back to an initiative on improving re-entry. More education, job training and mentoring could be offered. This effort has been bolstered by the fact that several states have been working on overhauling their justice systems and correctional facilities.

One notable success appears to be Texas, according to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. The group touted the fact that the state has closed eight prisons while reducing its crime rate.

Attendees of the recent roundtable described Trump as an active participant who showed some passion and connection to the issue.

The leader of Families Against Mandatory Minimums agreed that the president's participation in the discussion is a good thing. However, he pointed out that Trump administration changes to certain prison policies have reduced time spent in halfway houses and less access to post-release services.

Will Trump's bully pulpit push reform efforts forward?

It's unclear whether Congress will be interested in reform efforts, especially in a midterm election year. The topic of justice system changes arose at a recent Camp David retreat, and House Speaker Paul Ryan backs some changes. However, Congress has not acted on sentencing reform for drug offenders or other reform measures.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions may also pose a barrier to reform. As a U.S. Senator, he was critical of the proposed reforms. As the nation's top prosecutor, he has directed U.S. Attorneys to file the most serious provable charges against every defendant, including low-level and nonviolent drug offenders. He has also indicated a willingness to use controversial private prisons.

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