It was toward the end of an hourlong meeting in January on proposed criminal justice reforms and President Trump’s interest was beginning to wane. Reed Cordish, then a White House adviser, was one of a dozen people in the Roosevelt Room. He decided to interject.
Cordish told Trump that prisoners were the kind of forgotten people the president had promised to represent, and that backing changes to the federal prison system was an opportunity to help.
“Everyone kind of stopped, and he was looking at me for what seemed like a really long time, and he said ‘You’re right,’” Cordish recalled.
By that point Cordish, who left the White House in March to return to his family’s real estate development company in Baltimore, had been working for months on efforts to change how federal prison inmates are rehabilitated and to limit some sentences. With Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner taking the lead, Cordish was part of a small team in the White House that sought to build support for legislation that had long percolated on Capitol Hill.
Late Tuesday night, the worked paid off. The Senate passed a bill — called the First Step Act — to expand rehabilitation programs for nonviolent drug users and give judges more discretion in handing down sentences. On Thursday, the House of Representatives followed suit. President Trump said he will sign it into law, calling the legislation “historic.”
Cordish said he watched the Senate vote on television at home in Baltimore with his wife. The bill passed with overwhelming support.
“It was a great moment,” Cordish said. “It was something I’ll certainly never forget.”
The legislation's broad aim is to minimize the warehousing of prisoners and make it easier for inmates to succeed once released. The law could mean that as many as 200 federal inmates from Maryland get reduced prison sentences as a result of one of its provisions. And it includes language drafted by Rep. Elijah Cummings that all but bans the solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal system.
The measure’s passage was a moment of rare accord in Washington; just hours after the House voted for it, the government was brought back to the brink of a partial shutdown over funding for a border wall.
But some supporters of the measure cautioned that the changes in the criminal justice package are modest and ought to be expanded in coming months.
Cummings said the bill will make important steps toward reducing the prison population and help inmates be better prepared for life back on the streets. But the Baltimore Democrat said more changes need to be made.
“There is still work that needs to be done to tackle the scourge of mass incarceration and to address the many ways the criminal justice system disproportionately harms people of color,” he said in a statement.
The First Step Act attracted bipartisan backing and drew together both liberal and conservative activist groups. Cordish, who was better known for work on business issues during his time in Washington, said he and Kushner and their team worked to build a coalition of supporters in Congress and around the country.
He said it was clear that Trump himself needed to be persuaded to publicly support the idea for Congress to take action.
“This was not going to happen unless he sent the signal to the conservative members that this was an administration priority,” Cordish said.
The discussions on criminal justice began in the White House in the spring of 2017, gathering momentum throughout the summer. Cordish said he was involved in several meetings with Trump.
“He was willing to engage on it from the start but as it went on we saw his level of interest, passion even, we really saw it come into light,” he said.
Mark Holden, the general counsel for Koch Industries and a criminal justice advocate, said he began talking with Cordish and Kushner in the summer of 2017. He attended the January meeting in the Roosevelt Room and called it “pivotal.”
At that point Cordish said the president still wasn’t completely convinced about backing the reform. But Holden said Cordish’s forgotten people appeal seemed to land with Trump.
“You could see that really resonated with the president,” Holden said. “He got it.”
A line about prisoners was included in the State of the Union and, in a speech at a retreat for Republican lawmakers in February, Trump went off script and added a few extra lines about rehabilitation.
“I’ve watched this, and I’ve seen it, and I’ve studied it,” Trump said. “And people get out of prison, and they made a mistake. And not all — some are very bad, but many are very good. And they come home and they can’t get a job. It’s sad.”
Cordish was back at the White House following the speech and picked up on the unscripted moment.
“For Jared and I, that was a great indication that he was really starting to embrace this,” Cordish said.
In May, after Cordish had left his White House post, the House passed a version of the legislation. Then in November, Trump held an event formally declaring his support and began advocating for the Senate to take up the idea and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ultimately allowed a vote.
On Tuesday, Sen. Ben Cardin invoked Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 on the Senate floor as an example of why changes to the criminal justice system are so important. After Gray suffered a fatal injury in Baltimore police custody, a Justice Department investigation found patterns of discriminatory policing in the city.
“My colleagues on both sides of the aisle understand that our criminal justice system is badly broken and in need of repair, and just as the name suggests, passage of tonight’s bill is a critical first step toward making those fixes,” the Democratic senator said.
The First Step Act comes on the heels of statewide criminal justice reform signed two years ago by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. The state bill reduced prison terms for some drug crimes as lawmakers aimed to steer addicts into rehab, not prison.