Trump’s vague com­mit­ment to crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - JA­COB SUL­LUM @ja­cobsul­lum Ja­cob Sul­lum is a se­nior ed­i­tor at Rea­son mag­a­zine.

Alice Johnson’s ap­pear­ance at the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion last week was a re­buke to Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Joe Bi­den, who for decades pro­moted the dra­co­nian poli­cies that sent her to prison for life as a first-time, non­vi­o­lent drug of­fender.

Johnson’s case was also meant to show that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who com­muted her sen­tence in 2018 and par­doned her the day af­ter her speech, of­fers a more en­light­ened al­ter­na­tive.

The truth is a lit­tle more com­pli­cated. While Bi­den’s record on crim­i­nal jus­tice is­sues is long and aw­ful, Trump’s is short and pretty good. But when it comes to prom­ises for the fu­ture, a re­pen­tant Bi­den sup­ports sev­eral am­bi­tious re­forms, while Trump sounds like the Bi­den of the 1980s and ’90s.

Johnson, who re­ceived a life sen­tence in 1997 for par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Mem­phis­based co­caine-traf­fick­ing op­er­a­tion, was in­tro­duced dur­ing the pres­i­dent’s State of the Union ad­dress last year, and she was fea­tured in a Trump cam­paign Su­per Bowl ad last Fe­bru­ary. Her case ex­em­pli­fies the un­just penal­ties that Bi­den — whom the Trump cam­paign de­scribes, with only a lit­tle hy­per­bole, as “the chief ar­chi­tect of mass in­car­cer­a­tion and the War on Drugs” — sup­ported as a sen­a­tor.

Trump seems to have been gen­uinely moved by Johnson’s story, and so far he has com­muted 10 sen­tences in ad­di­tion to hers. By com­par­i­son, Barack Obama, who even­tu­ally com­muted a record 1,715 sen­tences, ap­proved just one pe­ti­tion dur­ing his first term.

The con­ven­tion also high­lighted Trump’s sup­port for the FIRST STEP Act, a 2018 law that in­cluded some mod­est but sig­nif­i­cant sen­tenc­ing re­forms. One of those pro­vi­sions dealt with the ir­ra­tional dis­par­ity be­tween the smoked and snorted forms of co­caine, which was cre­ated by a 1986 law that Bi­den wrote.

More than two decades later, in the midst of his un­suc­cess­ful bid for the 2008 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, Bi­den in­tro­duced a bill aimed at elim­i­nat­ing that dis­tinc­tion, which had led to strik­ingly un­equal treat­ment of Black de­fen­dants. While the bill went nowhere, Bi­den as vice pres­i­dent con­tin­ued to ad­vo­cate cor­rec­tion of what he last year de­scribed as “a big mis­take” that had “trapped an en­tire gen­er­a­tion.”

The Fair Sen­tenc­ing Act, which Obama signed in 2010, shrank but did not elim­i­nate the gap be­tween crack and co­caine pow­der, and it did not ap­ply retroac­tively, mean­ing that thou­sands of pris­on­ers con­tin­ued to serve sen­tences that nearly ev­ery­one agreed were ex­ces­sive.

The FIRST STEP Act, which passed the House and the Se­nate with over­whelm­ing sup­port, ad­dressed the lat­ter prob­lem; it also re­duced sen­tences for re­peat drug of­fend­ers, ex­panded “good time” cred­its, pre­vented the stack­ing of mul­ti­ple firearm charges in a sin­gle drug case and widened the “safety valve” that al­lows low-level, non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers to avoid manda­tory min­i­mums.

Trump de­serves credit for sup­port­ing that law, which has freed thou­sands of fed­eral pris­on­ers, and for us­ing his clemency pow­ers not only to help his cronies but also to ame­lio­rate some gen­uine in­jus­tices. Yet his cam­paign has noth­ing to say about fur­ther re­forms, and his sec­ond-term agenda echoes the “tough on crime” Bi­den, call­ing for more po­lice on the streets, op­pos­ing bail re­form and ad­vo­cat­ing harsher pun­ish­ment with­out ex­plain­ing why cur­rent penal­ties are in­ad­e­quate.

Bi­den, mean­while, claims to have seen the er­ror of his ways. In ad­di­tion to equal­iz­ing the sen­tences for crack and co­caine pow­der, he sup­ports abol­ish­ing the myr­iad manda­tory min­i­mums and death penal­ties he once cham­pi­oned and de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing pot pos­ses­sion, although he still re­sists re­peal­ing the fed­eral ban on mar­i­juana.

“Against all odds,” the pres­i­dent’s daugh­ter, Ivanka, said at the con­ven­tion, Trump “brought to­gether Repub­li­cans and Democrats, and passed the most sig­nif­i­cant crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form of our gen­er­a­tion. And we’re just get­ting started.”

That last part re­quires some ex­pla­na­tion. “My fa­ther did not cam­paign on this is­sue,” Ivanka Trump added. “He tack­led this in­jus­tice be­cause he has a deep com­pas­sion for those who have been treated un­fairly.”

While I am in­clined to be­lieve her, Trump needs to clar­ify the fu­ture im­pli­ca­tions of that im­pulse.


Alice Johnson, who had been serv­ing a life sen­tence for par­tic­i­pat­ing in a drug traf­fick­ing op­er­a­tion, was par­doned by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. On Aug. 27, she spoke at the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion.

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