In 2007, Marvin D. Anthony was sentenced to life in prison for selling crack cocaine. In 2016, President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaStephen Sondheim, legendary Broadway songwriter, dies at 91 With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE commuted Anthony’s sentence of 262 months of imprisonment to replace the former life sentence.
To date, President Barack Obama has pardoned or commuted the sentences of over 1,300 people — many of them behind bars for years or even decades. Draconian drug laws imprisoned men and women, sometimes for life, for committing nonviolent drug offenses. The pardons revealed some of the most egregious issues in the criminal justice system.
Money can be diverted from the prison system and go towards better schools and better social services, perhaps aimed at making sure individuals do not have to resort to crime to live.
Criminal justice reform has garnered bipartisan support. Both conservatives and liberals have recognized the systemic problems in the system. Wealthy conservatives, such as the Koch brothers, have funded several criminal justice initiatives while George Soros, the liberal leaning billionaire, funded progressive District Attorneys in multiple election races.
The reality of true criminal justice reform appears bleak in the age of Trump.
Trump’s adamant accusations against the Central Park Five even after their DNA exonerations, his campaign promises to be tough on crime, and his endorsement of stop-and-frisk all suggest a stalling on any progress.
Trump’s refusal to admit innocent people are prosecuted and his representation that crime goes down when we violate people’s fundamental civil liberties is at odds with reform efforts of today.
However, specifics on Trump’s criminal justice reform policies are unknown.
This may leave room for moderate reform efforts. Some conservative leaders have urged Trump and Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThose predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold The metaverse is coming — society should be wary MORE, Trump’s pick for Attorney General, to continue to address criminal justice issues. On the campaign trail Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump endorses challenger to Hogan ally in Maryland governor's race Pence to headline New Hampshire event focused on Biden spending plan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Arbery case, Biden spending bill each test views of justice MORE stated, “[w]e have got to do a better job recognizing and correcting the errors in the system that do reflect an institutional bias in criminal justice.”
Recognizing that there is bias in the system is the first step for addressing it. Trump could roll back some of the criminal reform efforts championed by President Obama. Trump could issue executive orders that make it tougher for felons to get jobs and or nullify President Obama’s pardons.
However, the reach of Trump’s criminal justice policies is limited as it is with any President. The vast majority of incarcerated individuals are in the state prison system, not the federal system, and thus most of America’s incarcerated individuals are under the control of state and local policies.
However, Trump can set the tone for criminal justice reform across the nation with the federal policies he champions.
If Trump were to tackle criminal justice issues, it must not be with just an eye for ‘”law and order.”
Crime rates in New York City are at an all-time low despite the abandonment of stop-and- frisk when it was found to be an unconstitutional practice.
Tough on crime measures have, time and time again, proven to be ineffective in actually reducing crime. Instead, Trump must focus his efforts on eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing.
While this would only affect federal prisoners, it would go a long way in reducing the federal prison population, and may even give states the green light to dispose of or readjust their own mandatory minimum laws. A conversation on the disparities in the system must also happen.
For example, bail must be revisited as it seeks to imprison the poorest and most vulnerable defendants. There should be renewed efforts for diversionary programs over incarceration.
Perhaps, however, the most likely future of reform under a Trump presidency is keeping things at the status quo. Trump did not substantially address criminal justice issues on his campaign platform. He did focus on immigration, terrorism, and health care. Perhaps, with bigger fish to fry on Trump’s agenda, criminal justice reform will be neither stymied nor advanced during a Trump presidency.
In this case, it would be incumbent on organizations to push for reform at the local and state level. Organizations and individuals can demand changes to discriminatory laws, argue for the elimination or reduction of bail, elect fair District Attorneys, hold police accountable, and demand for the de-privatizations of prisons and jails.
Whatever a Trump presidency means for criminal justice reform is still unclear. What is clear is that state and local organizations and individuals must not abandon reform efforts. Some of the greatest achievements with the most far-reaching impact occur at the state level—where local organizations and individual voters hold the power.
Yosha Gunasekera is a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society where she has represented hundreds of clients in the criminal justice system. She writes about criminal justice for the Huffington Post.
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