Magazine article The American Conservative

Trump Goes to Prison: Criminal Justice Reform Brings GOP, Democrats-And the President-Together

Magazine article The American Conservative

Trump Goes to Prison: Criminal Justice Reform Brings GOP, Democrats-And the President-Together

Article excerpt

The election of Donald Trump looked like it would end momentum toward criminal justice reform. But as with many predictions about his presidency, this turned out to be wrong.

Criminal justice reform is a complicated subject, but it's based on some simple ideas. The vast majority of prisoners will get out one day and return to their communities. It makes sense, therefore, to offer them treatment for problems such as drug addiction and mental illness, while also helping them with job skills and training. That way, they have a chance to make a go of life on the outside, rather than committing new crimes and returning to prison. To do otherwise is not just ineffective policy but counterproductive, because it means more crimes will be committed.

This philosophy is a rebuke, in other words, to the "tough on crime" policies that dominated discussion during the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, when murder rates were rising fast and the crack cocaine epidemic was rotting cities from within, politicians shied away from the idea that it was worth trying to rehabilitate prisoners. All they wanted to show criminals were concrete cells and maybe hammers they could use to bust up rocks. Providing any sort of helping hand to convicts came to be viewed as misguided mercy. Congress and the states adopted policies such as mandatory minimum sentencing laws that may have cut back on crime but certainly caused prison populations to soar.

As a candidate, Trump sounded like he came out of that more punitive tradition. He had long advocated for aggressive police tactics such as stop-and-frisk, in which New York cops patted down individuals for drugs and weapons on pretenses the courts ultimately considered dubious. In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, he said that "tough crime policies are the most important form of national defense," making it essential that government "tranquiliz[e] the criminal element as much as possible." He vowed in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016 to "liberate our citizens" from "the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation"; blamed President Barack Obama throughout the campaign for releasing violent criminals; and argued on Fox News that police could solve problems in cities like Chicago by "being very much tougher than they are right now." He tweeted that "inner-city crime is reaching record levels" and pledged to "stop the slaughter going on."

Trump seemed ready to put his law and order campaign rhetoric into practice by installing Jeff Sessions as his attorney general. They've had their differences, but Sessions remains an active voice when it comes to criminal justice. As a senator, he presented one of the most significant roadblocks to a criminal justice reform bill that enjoyed broad bipartisan support but ended up dying toward the end of the Obama administration. Sessions warned that the bill "would release thousands of violent felons and endanger millions of Americans whose safety is increasingly threatened by rising crime rates." As attorney general, Sessions has continued to take a hard line on crime and drug issues. Blaming Trump and Sessions for backward-looking policies, The New York Times editorialized that their approach represented "the undoing of justice reform."

Not so fast. Despite all of this, Trump has instead emerged as an unlikely or at least surprising champion for criminal justice reform. "Many people made a big mistake assuming what Trump administration policies were going to be," says Vikrant Reddy, a senior fellow at the Charles Koch Institute focusing on criminal justice reform and policing reform.

Trump may be instinctively anti-crime--he frequently cites his concerns about illegal immigration and gangs--but it turns out he has opened up to new and less reactionary ways of fighting it. And that includes the system taking a more proactive role in prisoner rehabilitation. The real payoff is for society as a whole, which can expect higher percentages of ex-convicts to find employment and housing and become productive members of their communities--if they're properly equipped--rather than just coming out "hardened" and destined to fall back on their worst proclivities. …

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