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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 TrumpVirginia GOP gubernatorial nominee acknowledges Biden was 'legitimately' elected Biden meets with DACA recipients on immigration reform Overnight Health Care: States begin lifting mask mandates after new CDC guidance | Walmart, Trader Joe's will no longer require customers to wear masks | CDC finds Pfizer, Moderna vaccines 94 percent effective in health workers 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 WhitehouseJudge's decision on Barr memo puts spotlight on secretive DOJ office On The Money: Incomes, consumer spending soared in March | Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package | Biden cancels some border wall construction Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package MORE (D-RI) and John CornynJohn CornynGOP split on counteroffer to Biden's spending Police reform talks hit familiar stumbling block CNN asks Carol Baskin to comment on loose Texas tiger 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 PaulGOP lawmaker calls for Wuhan probe to 'prevent the next pandemic' All congressional Democrats say they have been vaccinated: CNN Fauci on Rand Paul: 'I just don't understand what the problem is with him' MORE (R-KY) and Cory BookerCory BookerPolice reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Almost 20 advocacy groups team up to pressure Congress to pass health care bill for immigrants Biden adds pressure to congressional talks with self-imposed deadlines 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 CummingsOvernight Health Care: AstraZeneca may have included outdated data on vaccine trial, officials say | Pelosi says drug pricing measure under discussion for infrastructure package | Biden administration extends special ObamaCare enrollment until August Pelosi: Drug pricing measure under discussion for infrastructure package Bottom line 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 SessionsOne quick asylum fix: How Garland can help domestic violence survivors Biden fills immigration court with Trump hires Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report 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.