President Trump and Criminal Justice Reform


The election of Donald Trump raises many, many questions regarding what his administration will prioritize and try to accomplish.  We have been given bits and pieces of Trump’s positions on a variety of issues but little in terms of explicit policy statements.  Criminal justice is one of the issues that Trump has spoken of on the campaign trail. What he has said does not bode well for criminal justice reform.

Trump has branded himself as the law and order candidate (July 2016) and the tough on crime candidate. In November 2015 on MSNBC he said  "I'm tough on crime. I mean I’m a believer in tough on crime, I really am. … You look at what's going on in the inner cities right now, it's unbelievable. … It's like the Wild West." In another interview on MSNBC in August of 2016, Trump stated “we have to get a lot tougher [on crime}.”

Trump has criticized the Obama administration’s release of approximately 600 low-level drug offenders from federal prison.  Not letting the facts get in his way, Trump declared “Obama is even releasing violent criminals from the jails, including drug dealers, and those with gun crimes. And they're being let go by the thousands. By the thousands. … Obama pushed for changes to sentencing laws that released thousands of dangerous, drug-trafficking felons and gang members who prey on civilians.”

Trump has held tough on crime beliefs for at least 16 years.  His 2000 book The America We Deserve presents a variety of Trump opinions about crime.  For example, he stated that crime is not a result of poverty or childhood maltreatment.  Rather, he portrays such explanations as soft on crime.  His prescription for public safety is being tough.  “Tough crime policies are the most important form of national defense…Aggressive anticrime policies are the best social program ( Trump is an avid advocate of imprisonment, showing no concern for current levels of incarceration and clear distain for recent, ever-so-modest reform efforts.

There is legislation in Congress proposing modest changes to federal sentencing, which has enjoyed some bi-partisan support.  But it has languished there for over two years and the prospects of it being resurrected under President Trump are bleak.

While the evidence is overwhelmingly in support of reducing punitive policies and implementing comprehensive, evidence-based clinical intervention and rehabilitation programs, that may not phase a Trump administration. Trump does not appear to be particularly tied to scientific evidence.  For example, he believes climate change is a hoax.

The law and order, tough on crime President-elect says we need to stay the course of tough sentencing, mass incarceration and retribution.

The early speculation is that Rudy Giuliani is Trump’s first choice for Attorney General.  Not only can the Justice Department set the crime policy agenda, history shows us that they play a substantial role in facilitating that agenda at the state level.  There is little doubt that Giuliani will advance tough on crime initiatives.

What does all of this portend for criminal justice reform?  There have been some state level rollbacks of tough on crime policies, especially in terms of sentencing laws and prison populations. Fiscal pressures may keep some states headed in that direction, but to reiterate, this is very modest change.

The bigger picture of criminal justice reform is much more extensive and comprehensive than what has transpired or been considered to date.  For example, the recidivism rate of mentally ill prisoners is 80 percent.  That screams revolving door and should serve as a clue about diverting to clinical treatment many of the 40% of prison inmates who are mentally disordered.  So too for the vast majority who have a substance use disorder, as well as those with neurocognitive and intellectual impairment and deficits. 

One very important unknown in all of this is the political impact Trump will have on reform.  My fear is that a federal tough on crime agenda will increase the political risk associated with current reform efforts, in turn keeping any surviving reform efforts piecemeal and modest .  It is worse news for extensive, comprehensive criminal justice reform. Among other things, reform requires effective leadership.  I just do not see that coming from a Trump White House.