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At White House summit on prison reform, Trump mourns Texas victims

Last Updated May 18, 2018 2:37 PM EDT

President Trump began his remarks at prison reform summit the White House Friday by expressing his sorrow over a shooting at a Santa Fe, Texas, school that has left at least eight dead.

"This has been going on too long in our country," the president said. "Too many years. Too many decades now. We grieve for the terrible loss of life, and send our support and love to everyone affected by this absolutely horrific attack. To the students, families, teachers, and personnel at Santa Fe High: We're with you in this tragic hour, and we will be with you forever."

The comments were a somber touch to the prison reform discussions that Vice President Mike Pence said are a priority for the Trump administration. Taking the podium before the president, Pence said the current prison system "too often" misses an opportunity to help improve people's lives, and instead just makes American communities more dangerous. Pence said the Trump administration will continue to hold accountable those who break the law, but also recognize that too many ex-offenders feel they have nowhere else to turn once they leave prison, and return to crime. 

"Prison reform is about changing lives, and about changing communities," Pence said.

The White House has hosted such discussions before, although not in such a large summit. But the reforms Mr. Trump's administration has floated before mostly entailed better preparing inmates for reentry and reducing recidivism rates, not the sentencing reform that liberals and some conservatives have hoped for in recent years. Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has made prison reform a top issue in his portfolio, said Mr. Trump is "all in" on prison reform, but explained why the White House's focus is narrow for now.

"Sentencing reform is something that people still have different opinions on," Kushner said, noting how Washington has been unable to come to a consensus on the matter for years. Kushner said he thinks the country's system of governance works well, and requires intense deliberation on pivotal issues like prison reform. 

Mr. Trump's rhetoric, both before and after his election, has been to act tough on crime and criminals, which some have pointed out seems to contradict with pursuing prison reform. 

The White House has brought in outside groups with varying political perspectives, including the Koch brothers-affiliated Koch Industries and Freedom Partners, and prison reform groups, for input. Freedom Partners Chairman Mark Holden has worked on the issue with the White House for months. CBS News interviewed Holden on the issue earlier this year.

"We back a wide array of meaningful criminal justice reforms, but when it comes to prison reform there is near-unanimous support from people who recognize that it is a critical first step forward," Holden said in a statement Friday. "We are thrilled to be working with members of Congress, the White House and advocates on all sides to make prison reform a reality this year."

Right on Crime, a leading right-of-center group on criminal justice reform, issued a joint statement from its leadership saying, "lives and families are too important to maintain the status quo."

"President Trump and his team, led by Jared Kushner, are leading the way to reduce crime, lower costs, and to provide a second chance to those willing to make a change. The United States of America is the greatest nation on the face of the Earth, and it is time for our Departments of Corrections to become just that – a place where lives can be corrected and improved. We aim to prevent more Americans from becoming victims, and to help offenders become contributing members of society, instead of a drain on our culture. Lives and families are too important to maintain the status quo."

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.