President Donald J. Trump could not find the truth in his heart anymore than he could find Kansas City in Kansas or Hurricane Dorian in Alabama.
The president has recently touted “criminal justice reform” in several venues: First, in a 30-second, five-million-dollar ad aired during the Super Bowl, and, second, during his February 4, 2020 State of the Union address.
In both venues the president implied that his signature on the First Step Act brought about the release from prison of Alice Johnson featured in the Super Bowl ad, who was actually released through the executive clemency process, and many other former inmates who have been released from prison under the First Step Act.
“Our roaring economy has for the first time ever given many former prisoners the ability to get a great job and a fresh start,” Trump said in the State of the Union address. “This second chance at life is made possible because we passed landmark criminal justice reform into law. Everybody said that criminal justice reform couldn’t be done, but I got it done and the people in this room got it done.”
Fake News of President as Criminal Justice Reformer
Once again the truth, not the “fake news” constantly spewed out from the president’s orbit, tells a different story. The head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Vanita Gupta, responded with truth to Trump’s Super Bowl ad with this tweet: “Trump is running on criminal justice reform? Really? How exactly does that square with the fact that both of his AGs – Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr – have undone almost all Obama-era justice and police reforms, targeted progressive DAs, and press policies of mass incarceration at every turn?”
And, in the February 5, 2020 edition of Mother Jones, Samantha Michaels also called out the president for his misrepresentations of the criminal justice reform efforts by his administration:
“Yes, it’s true that Trump—the same man who recommended heavier enforcement of stop and frisk policing, and whose administration brought back the federal death penalty and fueled the expansion of private prisons—signed a much-heralded bill in 2018 to reform the federal criminal justice system, with broad bipartisan support. The First Step Act made changes that have reduced the federal prison population, and it was the first criminal justice reform bill to pass Congress in a generation. So far, the law has shortened the prison stays of about 2,500 people who were serving disproportionately long sentences for crack cocaine offenses, most of them African American. It has also let more than 3,000 people go home early because of their good behavior during incarceration. And it could lead to improvements in prison conditions.
“While the First Step Act has allies in the White House—including Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner—the officials tasked with implementing it are in the Justice Department. Attorney General Bill Barr, who leads the department, has reportedly raised concerns in private that the legislation’s reforms will drive up crime. And under his watch, the department’s prosecutors have argued that hundreds of incarcerated people applying for relief under the law’s cocaine sentencing reforms are not eligible, according to an investigation by the Washington Post. In some cases, Trump has even stood onstage hugging and congratulating people who were recently released under the law—even as the Justice Department was arguing in court to lock those same people up again.
“The Justice Department’s attorneys are now trying to argue that some of the people released early through the First Step Act with drug charges should return to prison. The agency says that some people were convicted of possessing less crack than they actually did, and that judges should consider the larger amount when making decisions about who to set free. Most judges have not listened, but at least five have agreed, according to the Post. Other judges put their decisions on hold amid the confusion, keeping incarcerated people in limbo. Last year, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he believed the Justice Department was ‘trying to sabotage’ the First Step Act by pushing to keep these inmates behind bars.”
Justice Department Sabotaging First Step Act
The nation’s criminal justice system is indeed in a crisis. It is historically racist system that routinely rewards wealth and punishes poverty; a system that curries favor to white privilege while penalizing the race and ethnicity of other groups.
As we recently pointed out, the Sentencing Project reported that there were nearly 162,000 people in the U.S. prison system serving life sentences as of 2017—a surging all-time high. More than 44,000 of these individuals are serving what is known as “LWOP” (life without parole) life sentences—sentences that do not allow for parole under any circumstances and offer only a minuscule hope for executive clemency. It is nothing short of stunning that one in every seven U.S. inmates are serving life sentences—roughly 12,000 of whom were convicted as juveniles. Nearly 3300 of the LWOP lifers were convicted for non-violent offenses, like stealing a $150 jacket.”
That is a crisis.
The president and his reelection campaign are targeting people of color, especially African Americans, by touting his phony criminal justice reform efforts. The Trump orbit understand that people of color represent 37 percent of the U.S. population while they make up 67 percent of the nation’s 2.3 million prison population. The families of those incarcerated people represent a large voting bloc Trump is aiming to manipulate with “pie in the sky” claims about criminal justice reforms and improved employment opportunities for those loved ones released from prison.
Disingenuous Claims Seek Political Gains
The president received 8 percent of the African American and 29 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2016. A 2018 Rasmussen Reports poll suggested that Trump could increase his numbers among African Americans alone from 8 to 20 percent. That’s a scary thought given the fact that the president supports candidates, like Republican Eddie Rispone who loss a recent election to incumbent Louisiana Democratic Gov. Jon Bel Edwards. Rispone and a Republican PAC called “Make Louisiana Great Again” ran dramatized depictions of violent crime ads against Edwards based on his criminal justice reform initiatives.
Trump stood side by side with Rispone in support of these attack ads critical of criminal justice reforms patterned after the First Step Act put in place by Gov. Edwards.
That the nation’s criminal justice system is in crisis is not new, nor is it new that political candidates of every stripe have over the past fifty years used “law-and-order” as a gimmick to either get elected or reelected to public office. What is new is that the incumbent president is using claims about his support for criminal justice reform to get reelected when, in fact, he has undermined criminal justice reform and the rule of law at every opportunity during his term in office.
Whether this political hocus pocus will prove successful remains to be seen.