Deciphering the President’s Take on Criminal Justice Reform
President Trump brought criminal justice reform to the forefront of the political debate with his State of the Union address. In a startling turn for the president, who campaigned as a hardline law and order advocate, President Trump voiced support for measures tackling recidivism and the lingering effects of incarceration, stating: “…this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”
The president managed the considerable feat of appealing to both sides of the debate, and that’s what makes me nervous.
Most Americans want comprehensive criminal justice reform. Washington seems to prefer gridlock. The phrase “war on crime” has been used by presidents since Lyndon Johnson, and despite billions of dollars spent and new policies and laws enacted, the incarceration crisis has not improved, so forgive any skepticism with the latest rant.
As a candidate and a private citizen, Mr. Trump made his pro-police, tough on crime stance clearly known. In the past, he has blasted “forgiving” judges who “…emphasize criminals’ rights over those of ordinary citizens.” In fact, the clearest message we can glean from the president’s statements is that he sees America as divided—there are police and ordinary citizens, and there are criminals.
This is just the kind of binary thinking that leads to failed policies like mandatory minimum sentences.
This is just the kind of thinking that allows racial animosity to grow.
This is just the kind of thinking that leads law enforcement officers to believe that they are above the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve.
Has there been a change of heart? Does President Trump truly want released inmates to flourish and succeed while walking the line?
It’s possible, but guarded optimism seems the right approach. After all, in the same speech, he called for getting tougher on drug dealers—just rhetoric, right?
Well, under his administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges and strictest sentences possible in drug cases. This new policy forces prosecutors to request an exception from a superior before going after lesser charges for lower-level crimes, creating de facto minimum sentencing and taking autonomy away from federal attorneys.
Meaningful justice system reform is going to take a lot of work. Balancing a tough on crime approach with empathy and concern for the struggles of former inmates is a tall order, but it is possible.
As far as the president’s sincerity regarding second chances goes, we can hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and keep working to promote significant change.
2nd Chance University