POLITICS
04/20/2017 05:06 am ET Updated Apr 20, 2017

Trump Has Moved To Dismantle Criminal Justice Reform In His First 100 Days

A new report explains how the president's vision of America could lead to rollbacks.

In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump painted a dark picture of America, a nation where “crime and gangs and drugs” are causing “American carnage” in its cities. The address echoed Trump’s campaign, in which he sold increases in homicides in a handful of cities as a nationwide crime wave and presented “more law enforcement, more community engagement and more effective policing” as the solution to a nonexistent problem.

A report released Thursday by the Brennan Center for Justice lists a few ways in which Trump’s vision of America, along with policies put forth by his administration, could lead to widespread rollbacks in criminal justice reform.

“Trump’s dark portrait of America, however, comes at a time when the national crime rate is near historic lows ― 42 percent below what it was in 1997,” the report reads. “As his first 100 days near an end, what has the president done to address crime and criminal justice? And what can the country expect in the weeks and months ahead?”

Here are a few ways, as outlined in the Brennan Center report.

Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions attend a March 29 panel discussion at the White House on opioid and drug abuse.
Shawn Thew/pool photo/Getty Images
Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions attend a March 29 panel discussion at the White House on opioid and drug abuse.

Fear mongering to justify a return to tough-on-crime policies

Trump, who often presented himself as a “law and order” candidate in his campaign, has made repeated false claims about murder rates even though crime remained at near-historic lows in 2016. The report says that Trump’s logic in warning of a supposed rise in crime is linked to his immigration stance.

“By finally enforcing our immigration laws we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions and billions of dollars and make our communities safer for everyone,” Trump said in an address to Congress in February.

He has painted calls for police reform as “anti-law enforcement.” In July, Trump accused the Black Lives Matter movement of stoking violence against cops after five law enforcement officers were killed in Dallas. Trump also supports reimplementing “stop and frisk,” a policy that violates the constitutional rights of citizens by allowing unwarranted police searches ― particularly of black and Latinx people. Trump has also claimed that too much scrutiny of police departments has resulted in a “war on police.”

“Trump and his new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, insist that they must ‘Make America Safe Again,’ citing outside forces that have brought in drugs and violence ―  justifying a travel ban, a border wall with Mexico and mass deportations,” the report reads. “The administration has also issued several executive orders focused on combatting this phantom crime wave, without offering solutions to solve the real and serious localized problems of violence in Chicago and Baltimore.”

Trump has already signed three executive orders expanding the powers of federal law enforcement agencies ― including allowing the Department of Homeland Security to utilize “all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation.”

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The Justice Department Has Moved To Stop Policing The Police

Sessions is cynical of widespread police reform and civil rights investigations into departments. He has spoken out against consent decrees and sees “bad apples” as the reason for police misconduct rather than systemic failures. To Sessions, the government shouldn’t be “dictating to local police how to do their jobs” or dishing out “scarce federal resources” to sue cities.

Under Sessions, the Justice Department will “pull back” on investigations that he believes diminish the effectiveness of police departments. The Brennan Center report also notes that local police departments could evolve into a way for the government to enforce its immigration policies in sanctuary cities.

“Historically, the Justice Department has played a key role overseeing and regulating civil rights violations committed by local police departments. … Sessions outright rejects this role for the federal government, labeling it as part of a broader ‘war on police,’” the report says. “He has directed a review of all existing consent decrees and attempted to stall pending agreements. This trend will likely continue, potentially emboldening police departments to become more aggressive.”

Jeff Sessions listens as President Donald Trump speaks before Sessions is sworn in as U.S. attorney general on Feb. 9.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Jeff Sessions listens as President Donald Trump speaks before Sessions is sworn in as U.S. attorney general on Feb. 9.

Sessions Could Restart A War On Drugs And Bring Back ’90s Crime Policies

Sessions isn’t a fan of criminal justice reform. Like Trump, he may part with the bulk of conservatives and require federal prosecutors to seek the most extreme charge in every case they try, which could lead to the revival of mandatory minimum laws for relatively low-level, nonviolent offenses. This ideology, in many ways, contradicts a number of conservatives who have joined progressives in the stance that criminal justice reform is needed because too many Americans are incarcerated. 

“Since taking office, Sessions has given several speeches calling for a return to harsher federal charging policies, and issued memoranda directing U.S. Attorneys to stand by for such major policy shifts,” the report says. “Sessions could revoke key [Attorney General Eric] Holder-era initiatives, directing federal prosecutors to pursue maximum penalties in drug cases even in states where marijuana is legal. Notably, the administration has shown interest in expanding treatment options for opioid addiction, which disproportionately affects white, rural communities, while increased marijuana prosecutions would more affect communities of color.”

Rod Rosenstein, Trump’s choice to be deputy attorney general, is another fan of mandatory minimum sentences (even though the report says he has claimed they can be excessive in some cases).

Eric Dreiband, who could be nominated to run the Justice Department’s civil rights division, opposes “ban the box” reform, named for the criminal history check box on job applications, which would delay criminal background checks and focus hiring on a person’s qualifications.

Richard Baum, the acting drug czar, defended the “war on drugs” in 2001.

Steven Cook, a prosecutor who opposes sentencing reform, was appointed by Sessions to run the new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which would guide the country’s approach to violent crime. Cook and Sessions are planning to prosecute a higher number of drug and gun cases while pursuing mandatory minimums, according to The Washington Post, signaling a desire to reinstitute the war on drugs and “tough on crime” policies. 

Read the entire report below.

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