What can we expect from President-elect Trump when it comes to criminal justice reform? Even though overall crime rates are at historic lows, throughout Trump’s campaign he sounded reminiscent of Richard Nixon – emphasizing the problem of crime and the need for law and order. Because of this rhetoric, many criminal justice reformers are preparing for an uphill battle.
As is often the case with Trump, it is difficult to know exactly what he will support when it comes down to actual policy but there are some clues.
First, the bad – Trump has referred to nonviolent offenders who benefited from recent sentencing reforms as “dangerous drug-trafficking felons and gang members who prey on civilians.” He has also said he wants to pass new federal mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders in his first 100 days in office.
Another area many people are deeply concerned about is clemency. Obama has set records for sentence commutations, but there are thousands more clemency applicants waiting in line. Amy Ralston Povah, who is featured in the documentary film Incarcerating US, is working tirelessly in an effort to get applications approved. She worries the clemency window will be slammed shut when Obama leaves office.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence represents a mixed bag on this issue. On the campaign trail he said he is proud of criminal justice reforms passed in Indiana during his tenure as governor. For example, he signed a bill that gives some offenders the ability to expunge their records. However, ahead of his reelection campaign in 2016, he reinstated mandatory minimum prison terms for some drug crimes.
Some good news is that prominent Republicans, including those who may have Trump’s ear, support criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing incarceration. For example, this Reuter’s article points out that,
former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have advocated for reforms such as lowering sentences for some nonviolent crimes, improving prison conditions and helping former prisoners find jobs and housing.
That article continues,
In a meeting a few weeks ago, Trump’s staff was “very receptive” to arguments that crime rates have dropped in states that have reduced prison populations through sentencing reform, said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a bipartisan coalition that spearheads legislative efforts to lower sentences for nonviolent offenders.
On the other hand, Trump has allies like Senators Jeff Sessions and Tom Cotton – two of the most strident opponents of sentencing reform. You might recall that Senator Cotton claimed,
If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.
When thinking about these issues, an important point to keep in mind is that the president has limited influence on criminal justice policy. Only about 12% of prisoners are in the federal prison system. The vast majority of prisoners are at the state and local level where state legislatures and district attorneys have more influence. On this front, there were several promising victories on election night. And in the past few years we have seen many reforms at the state level that have helped reduce incarceration rates without a subsequent rise in crime – proving the argument that criminal justice reform is somehow “soft on crime” or will lead to higher crime rates is without merit.
While there are many real concerns, Trump’s election does not sound the death knell for criminal justice reform.
There is a growing number of people who understand the futility of the war on drugs and the disastrous effects of rigid sentencing policies like mandatory minimums. By continuing to spread this message across the country we can keep pressure on lawmakers and ensure the criminal justice reform movement does not stall when Trump becomes president.
By: Regan Hines, Director of Incarcerating US