Why you should care
Because it took conservatives like him to get criminal justice reform over the finish line.
It was early 2017, and David Safavian was just a few months into his new role as a criminal justice crusader for the American Conservative Union (ACU). As unlikely a path as any — one that included his own incarceration — had brought Safavian to this White House meeting with Jared Kushner, adviser and son-in-law to the newly inaugurated most powerful man in the world. Safavian outlined the inefficiencies of the prison system, pointing out that reforms could save taxpayer dollars. Kushner politely stopped him. “No, no, we’re not doing this because we want to save money. We’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do,” Kushner said. As Safavian recalls now: “It was such a starkly meaningful moment. Everything crystallized.”
Nearly two years later, President Donald Trump is poised to sign those reforms into law after they clear Congress this week. It’s a remarkable turnabout personally for Trump, who ran as a tough-on-crime candidate and installed reform skeptic Jeff Sessions as attorney general, and stands in contrast to the Obama administration’s inability to push a similar effort through in 2016. The First Step Act’s success has a lot to do with Kushner, but also the tireless work from conservatives like Safavian. The law will ease punishments for well-behaved prisoners, curb some mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses and help reverse excessive sentences for mostly Black users of crack cocaine from past decades.
As states continue to take up criminal justice reform as a rare arena for bipartisanship, Safavian’s work will only grow in importance. “Good Lord — without him, we would be lost,” says Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network. Safavian and ACU, which hosts the influential annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), have been instrumental in convincing Republican lawmakers that grassroots voters won’t rebel. “Lawmakers trust him when he says, ‘Look, this is conservative policy. This is not going to hurt you,”’ Harris says. The conservative imprimatur has had another effect: allowing Democrats, previously afraid “to be seen as soft on crime,” to get on board, says Jessica Jackson Sloan, who co-founded the #cut50 initiative with CNN’s Van Jones and has struck a friendship with Safavian despite her left-leaning politics.
Sitting in his office in Alexandria, Virginia, it’s far from the only surprise the laid-back 51-year-old reflects on from behind his glasses and buttoned down dress shirt. The deputy director of the ACU’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform never expected to work in a position like this, considering the pain he still feels about being convicted on false statements and obstructing an agency investigation in 2008, which led to nearly a year in federal prison. “Once you’ve been through the criminal justice system, you lose a piece of yourself,” he says. “Every time I talk about it, it’s like ripping the scab off.”
Growing up in the Detroit suburbs, Safavian was raised mostly by his mother after she divorced his father, an Iranian immigrant. He admittedly was a troublemaker in high school: “We drank and partied a lot,” the now father of two daughters says. He admired his grandfather, owner of a forging business, whom he credits for fostering his conservative beliefs. Safavian aspired to be a doctor when he started at Saint Louis University before he became a political science major … and a bartender. The lawyer insists that the latter gig was more educational than any of his four degrees. “I learned to read people much better,” he says.
Only a government program can fail 49 percent of the time and go unchanged.
That skill served him well in his rise from an unpaid congressional intern to eventually starting the Janus-Merritt Strategies firm with anti-tax maven Grover Norquist. But it was his stint with lobbyist Jack Abramoff at Preston Gates & Ellis in the mid-’90s that led Safavian to his own brush with the law. He was indicted in 2005, accused of lying to investigators about the help he gave Abramoff and an expensive golf trip they took together while Safavian was chief of staff at the General Services Administration. (Safavian maintains his innocence.) His time in a low-security Massachusetts prison was mostly occupied by reading, exercising and reflecting. He says the experience was much worse for his family.
It was toward the end of his sentence, when he transitioned to a halfway house in southwest D.C. called Hope Village (the inmates called it “Hopeless Village”), that he saw the ugly side of the criminal justice system. By night, six prisoners crammed into one-bedroom apartments, the first time Safavian felt truly unsafe during his incarceration.
Another striking memory from his time behind bars: being made to watch National Geographic videos — “oceanography class,” Safavian quips — and the History Channel, lame attempts to prepare inmates for freedom. “Only a government program can fail 49 percent of the time and go unchanged,” he says, noting that about half of released federal inmates are arrested again within eight years (recidivism is much higher among state prisoners). “We’re ready to hold prisons accountable the same way we hold private individuals accountable.”
It’s a markedly conservative argument — opposition to perceived government overreach, a call for personal responsibility — and one that has been ingrained in the First Step Act, which passed the U.S. Senate on Tuesday and is expected to clear the House as soon as Thursday. That’s partly why some progressives say the bill doesn’t go far enough; others say it’s the right action but uses the wrong methods. It “extends historic structural and systemic racism,” says Rev. Vivian Nixon, executive director of College & Community, a nonprofit helping formerly incarcerated women earn college degrees. Her concern lies in the law’s use of “risk-assessment tools” to help determine whether to decrease sentences, analyses which have proven to be racially and culturally biased.
Safavian agrees this new law is only the beginning. Chief among the reform movement’s resolutions for the new year will be improving health care services, particularly mental health, and addressing the specific needs of female prisoners — from access to their children to safeguards against sexual assault by male guards. “It’s pretty all-consuming,” Safavian says. “There are days when I feel like I should be doing more.”
With the U.S. still incarcerating more people per capita than any other country on the planet, there’s plenty to do.
Read more: The bourbon-loving Kentucky lobbyist behind prison reform.