Jon Ponder has lived both sides of the debate on criminal justice reform.
After two convictions for robbery, Ponder, 52, left prison a new man in 2009, he said. He was closer to God and had a better understanding of himself and his personal failings.
“I didn’t go to prison,” Ponder said of his transformation behind bars. “I went to Bible college.”
Now an associate minister at a Las Vegas church, Ponder is also the founder of HOPE for Prisoners, a program that helps more than 300 former inmates each year adjust to life after prison by providing financial advice, personal mentoring and connections to local employers.
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Ponder’s personal journey and his efforts to help former prisoners turn their lives around have earned him several trips to the White House this year.
He and other ministers met with President Donald Trump last week, in hopes that Congress and the Trump administration can strike a deal on prison and sentencing reform.
Ponder said he believes Trump supports inmate re-entry programs as much as he does.
“I think that something would really have to be wrong with that man to sit down in that room and have the conversation with the (ministers) that he did, if he was not being sincere about this,” Ponder said. “I believe that he spoke from his heart. He shared in that room that he was very compassionate about this, and about the importance of people who are fighting for a second chance.”
As the White House seeks to make headway on criminal justice reform, Trump will meet with governors at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., on Thursday to discuss prison and sentencing reform.
The timing is propitious. Republicans and Democrats have found rare common ground, agreeing that the federal government needs to jail fewer people for less time at a lower cost to society.
Trump supports the First Step Act, a bipartisan prison reform bill which passed the House in May. It would provide $250 million over 5 years to beef up education, vocational training and rehabilitation programs within the federal prison system.
Inmates who participate in the programs would receive credits toward early release and would be expected to be better prepared for employment once they leave prison.
“We passed the First Step Act through the House, and we’re working with the Senate to pass that into law. And I think we’ll be able to do it. When we say “hire American,” we mean all Americans -- every American, everybody,” Trump said at the meeting with ministers.
Although the bill passed 360-59, critics say the First Step Act doesn’t address the “front end” problem of longer prison sentences which have fueled decades of growth in the federal prison population.
To that end, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 16-5 vote in February, calls for loosening federal sentencing guidelines for repeat non-violent drug offenders and scrapping the “three-strike” mandatory life in prison provision.
But after Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the proposal a “grave error,” the bill never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.
After a long impasse, Trump and GOP senators are now discussing a compromise proposal that would combine provisions of both bills.
After Trump and a group of GOP senators huddled on the issue last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, described the meeting as “promising.”
“We’re trying to do two things,” Graham said. “(The House) prison reform bill got huge bipartisan support. Sentencing reform is an area where there’s a lot of bipartisan support. We’ll try to see, working with the administration, if we can find a package.”
The Hill newspaper reported that some of the compromise proposals being weighed include lowering mandatory minimum drug sentences for some felony offenders, allowing judges to impose lighter drug sentences and retroactively reducing sentencing disparities between crack- and cocaine-related cases.
A White House spokesman would not comment on possible compromises being considered.
Ponder supports the First Step Act, but said it’s also time to soften federal mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenses.
At the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, “it may have seemed like a good idea,” Ponder said. “But I don’t think they took into consideration the collateral consequences of that.”
About 184,000 inmates are currently housed in federal prisons, but the population grew from about 65,000 in 1990 to a high of nearly 219,000 in 2012 after the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 imposed longer mandatory sentences for drug offenses.
The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association worry that eliminating the mandatory minimum sentences will make it harder for law enforcement to get suspects to cooperate in drug investigations without the threat of long prison sentences to use as leverage.
In May, the president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Lawrence Leiser, criticized the the First Step Act, saying the bill’s changes require more study “followed by testing for a limited time on an experimental basis, with close monitoring of costs and effectiveness, prior to nationwide implementation.”
If a final reform bill does cause thousands of inmates to be released early, it would cause the workload to increase for federal parole and probation officers, said Patrick O’Carroll, executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. The group wants the final legislation to include funding for more probation and parole officers, O’Carroll said.
The FLEOA also wants final reform legislation to allow federal probation and parole officers to have arrest power over people who assault them in the course of their work - even if those people are not under the officer’s supervision.
Emma Dumain contributed to this report.