“This story was published in partnership with the Marshall Project.
On criminal justice, Donald J. Trump’s predecessor was a late-blooming activist. By the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, his administration had exhorted prosecutors to stop measuring success by the number of defendants sent away for the maximum, taken a hands-off approach to states legalizing marijuana and urged local courts not to punish the poor with confiscatory fines and fees. His Justice Department intervened in cities where communities had lost trust in their police.After a few years when he had earned the nickname “Deporter-in-Chief,” Obama pivoted to refocus immigration authorities—in effect, a parallel criminal justice system—on migrants considered dangerous, and created safeguards for those brought here as children. He visited a prison, endorsed congressional reform of mandatory-minimum sentences, and spoke empathetically of the Black Lives Matter movement. He nominated judges regarded as progressives.
In less than a year, President Trump demolished Obama’s legacy.
In its place, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has framed his mission as restoring the “rule of law”, which often means stiffening the spines and limiting the discretion of prosecutors, judges and law officers. And under President Trump’s “America first” mandate, being tough on crime is inextricably tied to being tough on immigration.
“I think all roads in Trump’s rhetoric and Sessions’s rhetoric sort of lead to immigration,” said Ames Grawert, an attorney in the left-leaning Brennan Center’s Justice Program who has been studying the administration’s ideology. “I think that’s going to make it even harder for people trying to advance criminal justice reform because that’s bound up in the president’s mind, in the attorney general’s mind, as an issue that they feel very, very passionately on—restricting immigration of all sorts.”
Here are nine ways Trump has transformed the landscape of criminal justice, just one tumultuous year into his presidency.
He changed the tone
Words matter, and Trump’s words were a loud, often racially charged departure from the reformist talk of being “smart on crime” and making police “guardians, not warriors.” His response to a New York City terrorist truck attack last year reflects the new tone:
“We… have to come up with punishment that’s far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now,” Trump said. “They’ll go through court for years. And at the end, they’ll be—who knows what happens. We need quick justice and we need strong justice—much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock. And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place.”
The president’s rhetoric seemed to trickle down. Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, adopted what many call “Trumpism” during his fall campaign, vilifying Democrat Ralph Northam as being soft on crime. His ads accused Democrats of restoring the voting rights of a child pornography collector—targeting one man out of the 168,000 former felons who had had their voting rights restored.
In a hotly contested Alabama senate race, Trump accused the Democrat—a prosecutor who had won convictions against two Klansmen who helped plot the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls—of being “soft on crime.”
While both of the Republicans lost, prisoner advocates worry the discourse has re-sparked irrational fears and will spook conservatives who have in recent years joined the reform movement. And Trump has not limited his target set to Democrats. He has attacked members of his own party, like Arizona senator Jeff Flake, as “weak on crime and border.”
He wants to keep the “mass” in mass incarceration
Of all the moves Sessions made in 2017, none brought as much consternation from all sides of the political spectrum—from the Koch brothers and Rand Paul to the ACLU and Cory Booker—as this: He revoked the Obama-era instruction to federal prosecutors to be more flexible in charging low-level, nonviolent offenders. Under this policy, federal prosecutions had declined for five consecutive years and, in 2016, were at their lowest level in nearly two decades, according to the Pew Research Center.
Sessions ordered prosecutors to seek the maximum punishment available, prompting widespread fear of a return to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the federal prisons filled with drug offenders. In what it is calling a budget cut, the Bureau of Prisons has also ordered the closure of several halfway houses, which can extend the length of time soon-to-be released prisoners are spending behind bars.
The administration has also cast doubt on the prospect of legislation aimed at reducing mandatory-minimum sentences and encouraging diversion to drug treatment and mental health care. Governors and advocates who boast of success at reducing state prison populations—notably in red states—met with the president and son-in-law Jared Kushner on January 11 to plead for similar measures in the federal system, but the discussion was largely confined to rehabilitating the incarcerated rather than incarcerating fewer people in the first place. While sentencing reform seems to be fading, there appears to be progress toward a Kushner-led crusade that calls on churches and private businesses to mentor prisoners upon release and help them find jobs and housing. Trump may also look to cut regulations such as licensing requirements that prohibit applicants with felony records from some lines of work.
He made immigration synonymous with crime
Perhaps the most consistent theme of his young administration is that immigrants, especially immigrants of color, are a danger. From the Mexican “rapists” to the “shithole countries” of the third world, the president has played to a base that believes—evidence to the contrary—that immigrants bring crime and displace American workers.
Deportation orders have surged. The Department of Justice said in early December that total orders of removal and voluntary departures were up 34 percent compared with the same time in 2016. Actual removals have not kept pace—in fact, they were at their lowest level since 2006, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University—but it is clear the Trump administration is ramping up ways to deport undocumented immigrants.
The declared ending of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was met with wide consternation from Republicans and Democrats, and is being fought out in courts and bipartisan political negotiations. Trump has given mixed signals as to whether the DACA recipients, brought into the US illegally as children, get to stay, and at what political price. But in the meantime he has ordered an end to protection of refugees from Haiti (at least 60,000) and El Salvador (at least 200,000) who were granted temporary legal status under a bill signed by the first President Bush. And just the other day Sessions limited the power of immigration judges to close complicated cases, a move that could lead to thousands more deportations.
The immigrants-as-menace meme recurs in the argument over “sanctuary cities,” where officials have declined to help in the roundup of the undocumented. Sessions has threatened to withhold federal policing funds from uncooperative venues, so far unsuccessfully.”
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Ah, the “New American Gulag!”