Trump's criminal justice reform record fraught with contradiction

Trump's criminal justice reform record fraught with contradiction

Criminal justice reform took center stage last weekend when the Bipartisan Justice Center honored President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE at Benedict College, an HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities) in Columbia, South Carolina, for signing the First Step Act into law last year.  The bill, a bipartisan effort supported by Trump and buoyed by high profile celebrities like CNN’s Van Jones, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, reduces prison sentences for some federal crimes and provides support services for currently and formerly incarcerated men and women. But the decision by the center to single out Trump for his efforts at an event that substantially restricted student and faculty access at the predominantly black college was a showcase in hypocrisy and rightly garnered widespread condemnation.

The location was itself a cruel juxtaposition. Blacks make up 55 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina, a state where the confederate flag once flew over the capitol.

The First Step Act was a sorely needed reform. Statistics reveal that one in three black men in this country spend time in prison during their lifetimes; 56 percent of the prison population is comprised of black and Latino Americans, and while African Americans are roughly 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, they alone comprise 34 percent of those in prison. So striking are the numbers and lingering effects of disrupted lives and families that a 2015 New York Times report proclaimed there are “1.5 million missing black men” due to incarceration or early death. 

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The First Step Act’s sponsors, Sens. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocratic senators seek documents on Trump's alleged call for Barr press conference Senate committee advances budget reform plan Bipartisan Enzi-Whitehouse budget bill a very bad fix for deficits MORE (D-RI) and John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Overnight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Senate GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges MORE (R-Texas) encountered substantial pushback from Republicans. But similar attempts at bipartisan reform, including the 2014 Redeem Act, sponsored by Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulJohnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens Senate GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges McConnell discounts quick dismissal of Trump impeachment articles: 'We'll have to have a trial' MORE (R-KY) and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocratic senators introduce bill to push ICE to stop 'overuse' of solitary confinement Krystal Ball: Patrick's 2020 bid is particularly 'troublesome' for Warren 2020 Democrats demand action on guns after Santa Clarita shooting MORE (D-N.J.), did not fare as well.  

After the 2015 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, subsequent reporting during the unrest spotlighted poverty’s role in expanding the prison pipeline for African Americans. Decades-long increased militarization of local police departments came into full view.  Sen. Paul felt compelled to speak on these issues in a piece for Time Magazine in which he pointed out that “Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.” Repeated attempts to move the legislation forward have been stalled by Republicans. 

Considering the sinuous path and significant political capital expended to achieve reform, why does Trump’s award feel so offensive? First, Democrats have a healthy distrust for his motives given past interactions and comments.  Second, as a New York political gadfly and provocateur, Trump spent his own money on full page ads urging the death penalty for the Central Park 5, who have since been exonerated. In fact, earlier this year after a powerful film by Ava DuVernay exploded into the national consciousness, the president doubled down on his feelings about the case. Furthermore, Trump’s attitudes toward racial hierarchy are evident in comments referring to “s-hole” countries and his characterization of urban, mostly minority, populations including a widely publicized shot at the late Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsMaloney primary challenger calls on her to return, donate previous campaign donations from Trump Second person heard call suggesting Trump cared more about 'investigations' than Ukraine: AP Brindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees MORE (D-Md.) and Baltimore. 

Trump never misses an opportunity to contradict himself. So three days after being honored in South Carolina, Trump launched into a diatribe against Chicago’s leadership by intimating that its police chief and status as a sanctuary city contribute to the crime rate at a conference for international chiefs of police taking place there. 

The inherent danger to communities of color is that away from the public events, Trump’s sentiments can be amplified and promoted through the federal bureaucracy. The administration’s first attorney general, Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWhat are Republicans going to do after Donald Trump leaves office? Sessions vows to 'work for' Trump endorsement Sanford: 'It carries real weight' to speak against Trump 'while in office' MORE, reinforced an ugly narrative about cities and communities of color by routinely calling out Obama and Democrats for their supposedly lax approach to crime and punishment. Such accusations fly in the face of years of data showing a substantial decrease in crime and decreasing incarceration rates for all populations, including African Americans. 

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Sessions went further by issuing a directive in 2017 to U.S. attorneys requiring prosecutors to push for the most serious charges on crimes. Oddly, the administration also opposed reforms in Chicago’s police department after the shooting of Laquan McDonald and reversed a plan to decrease number of private prisons.

Given Trump’s track record, should it matter that criminal justice reform passed because of his penchant for courting celebrities? The men and women whose lives have been forever altered by the prison system may not care how the law came to fruition. But the president’s cringe-worthy remarks likening the impeachment process to lynching and the plight of black Americans – and the failure to engage activists including one who literally wrote the book on criminal justice reform – suggests the path to substantive change will be fraught with contradiction and peppered with insult to injury.    

Basil A. Smikle Jr., PhD, lectures at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Teachers College, and formerly was executive director of the New York State Democratic Party.