Trump the criminal justice reformer
Tough-on-crime president gets religion on calls for change
EFFORTS TO REFORM the US criminal justice system have been characterized by an alliance of unlikely bedfellows, with liberal groups like the ACLU joining with Right on Crime, a conservative group backed by the Koch brothers, and others to push for a turn away from the tough-on-crime policies of the 1970s and ‘80s. The movement can now claim one of its most unlikely champions: Donald Trump.
The president campaigned on a relentlessly tough-on-crime platform. He urged police to engage in a bit of street justice and not show too much restraint in their handling of suspects under arrest for violent crimes. He spoke of a dark, crime-ridden era of “American carnage” that had devastated US cities, one that would come to a miraculous end with his inauguration.
But yesterday Trump was hailing the Senate’s passage, by a wide bipartisan margin, of the most sweeping reform of federal criminal justice laws in decades. The First Step Act, which must still clear the House, would modify some mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, allow inmates to reduce the length of sentences by taking part in prison programs, and retroactively even out sentencing disparities between crack cocaine crimes and those involving powder cocaine, which exacted a particularly harsh toll in minority communities.
“We’re all better off when former inmates can receive and re-enter society as law-abiding, productive citizens,” Trump said last month when he declared his support for the federal bill.
The reforms would only affect federal prisons, which hold just 10 percent of the 2.1 million inmates in US prisons. But reform advocates hope the bill serves an important start — a “tone-setter,” says the Globe — for further federal reforms while also encouraging more changes at the state and local level, where the biggest impact on incarceration rates can be made. Some of the bill’s provisions echo elements of criminal justice legislation enacted earlier this year on Beacon Hill.
Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner played a big role in pushing the measure forward, even making a rare TV appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program to argue the case. Osita Nwanevu writes in The New Yorker that some of the strongest reform advocates have personal connections to the criminal justice system, and points out that Kushner’s father spent more than a year in federal prison, in 2005, for a white collar crime. Nwanevu also flags a 2016 story by fellow New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, in which Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden said charges filed against the company in 2000 alleging that it hid carcinogenic emissions from federal regulators — “a huge overreach, a grave injustice” — spurred the Koch interest in the criminal justice issues.
“We were very skeptical, going forward, of criminal prosecutors having too much power,” Holden told her. “So we got involved in criminal-justice reform.”Against that backdrop, with Trump facing multiple investigations that could put him in political or legal jeopardy and tweeting almost daily about special counsel Robert Mueller’s corrupt “WITCH HUNT,” maybe it’s not surprising at all to see him suddenly embrace the idea of reining in the reach of prosecutors.
“America is the greatest Country in the world and my job is to fight for ALL citizens, even those who have made mistakes,” he tweeted yesterday after Senate passage of the bill.