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Rushing meets with Pres. Trump

When they asked for his security clearance, he knew what was up.

The governor’s chief of staff had called Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing and asked him to attend a roundtable meeting on criminal justice reform in his capacity as president of the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association. The meeting would allow state officials to give their opinions on federal prison rules and would take place at the Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center on Monday, Nov. 26, just before President Donald Trump was scheduled to give a rally in nearby Biloxi in support of U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.

“I kind of figured it had something to do with the president when they asked for my clearances to get in, but I didn’t know I was going to meet him until that Sunday afternoon,” Rushing said. “I’m not gonna lie — it was a little overwhelming. I’m just a small county sheriff in south Mississippi.”

That’s how Rushing ended up sitting a couple of seats down from the president last week and sharing his two cents on The First Step Act, a federal bill that would bring reforms to the federal prison system by expanding compassionate release for terminally ill patients, mandating de-escalation training for correctional officers, improving prison hygiene, moving prisoners closer to family members when possible and other procedures. The bill passed the U.S. House last month and is now before the Senate.

Rushing joined Gov. Phil Bryant and his staff, along with Hyde-Smith, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Pelicia Hall and others to tell Trump and Vice President Mike Pence how Mississippi prefers to handle criminal justice reform.

The Magnolia State, in this instance, is a national leader on the topic, after court-mandated and legislative reforms in recent years have decreased the state’s crime and incarceration rates and solidified the rights of the accused.

“The bill doesn’t really affect us — these are all federal guidelines — but the president wanted to hear about what has been done here in Mississippi about sentencing reform and re-entry programs,” Rushing said.

Of course, even a simple chat with the president is a highly-moderated affair — Rushing said he was told to prepare to give the commander and chief a no-nonsense rundown of his points in 60 seconds. While the state delegation did most of the talking about prison reforms, when it came the sheriff’s turn to talk, he gave Trump the skinny on a program he believes has been successful in changing lives in Southwest Mississippi.

“I explained to him what our drug court system has done for Lincoln County and our area here,” Rushing said. “It’s a great program, a great alternative to help someone who is dealing with a drug problem. It helps that person fight the problem and re-enter society with a second chance, without sending them to prison. I didn’t mention any names, but I told the president the story of a guy we’ve dealt with on numerous occasions — he was finally sentenced to drug court, went through the program and now I see him every week and he’s on the right path.”

Rushing said he told the president The First Step Act should include programs to help former prison inmates get back into society, like job training.

“If they’re coming out without any support, it can cause them to get back into the same cycle,” he said. “As law enforcement, we recognize there’s a need to help folks re-enter society, to break that cycle.”

Rushing said he also got to speak with the president more personally for just a moment after the meeting was over.

“He seemed like a really nice guy. He was very matter-of-fact, businesslike,” he said. “You don’t very often get to sit down with the president and vice president, and it was an honor for the sheriff’s association to be asked for our input on the national level.”