Trump, Law & Order, and Record High Incarceration

criminal_justice_reform_Eric Risberg-American Progress
Inmates gather in the gym at San Quentin Prison due to overcrowding (Eric Risberg/Center for American Progress)

Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions have done little to implement specific criminal justice policy, but their threats to undo Obama’s reforms are jarring. What we are seeing from the Trump administration is not surprising, many Republican presidents have a history of being tough on crime. President Nixon’s “war on drugs” agenda is most memorable, as he ordered for an outright war on drugs in inner-cities by implementing mandatory prison sentences and no-knock warrants, disproportionately effecting Black and Brown folks.

During Reagan’s presidency, his “tough on crime” rhetoric resulted in a sharp increase in prison population and incarceration rates. As a result, prison populations in the U.S. continue to increase at a rate faster than any other nation in the world.  However, Obama was the first president in 36 years to leave office with a lower federal prison population than when he started.

federal_prison_population
Federal prison population (Pew Research Center/Vox)

During Obama’s presidency, he took executive action to pardon 1,324 inmates charged with nonviolent drug offenses and backed former Attorney General, Eric Holder, on his Smart on Crime Initiative, which placed pressure on federal prosecutors to stop charging low-level drug offenders. In 2010, he signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine. This disparity explicitly targeted the Black community during the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” eras.

Obama stressed the importance of looking at drug addiction through the lens of a health problem, not a criminal justice problem. He often explained the hypocrisy in locking up children and individuals for low-level drug offenses, while many lawmakers have used drugs before–admitting his trial use of marijuana and cocaine. All of this was to stop prison overcrowding and put an end to oppressive laws that disproportionately targeted people of color.

Using 2010 Census information, the Prison Policy Initiative calculated that Black folks are five times more likely to be incarcerated than White folks, and Hispanic folks are twice as likely than White folks. Additionally, Black citizens make up 13% of the U.S. population but 40% of the incarcerated population. Hispanics only make up 16% of the U.S. population but 19% of the incarcerated population. This equates to 2,306 Black citizens incarcerated per 100,000 and 831 Hispanic citizens incarcerated per 100,000 people. The statistics for the White population, however, are frighteningly lower. Making up 64% of the population, White folks make up 39% of the incarcerated population, equating to 450 White folks incarcerated per 100,000. From a Vox study on FBI data on racial disparities in police killings, it was found that racial minorities make up about 34% of the general population but account for 62% of unarmed victims killed by police.

police killings by race
Racial disparities in police shootings (Alvin Chang/Vox)

The Trump administration disagrees with many of the criminal justice reform laws passed by the Obama administration. Even though crime is at an all-time low, Sessions has made it clear that he believes the criminal justice system should not go easy on low-level drug offenders, and openly criticizes Obama’s decrees issued in response to violent police activity. As a result, Sessions has created a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which aims to increase prosecution and police force against violent crimes. However, it is still unclear what exactly this task force will do, but more details will be released on July 27th.

One positive policy in Trump’s criminal justice agenda is his commission to study the opioid epidemic, which is headed by Governor Chris Christie, who is known for treating drug addiction as a health issue and not a criminal justice issue. This newfound commission, when fully developed, has the possibility of helping those with severe addictions by providing them with rehabilitative services rather than issuing prison sentences. The only caveat is that this opioid epidemic is mainly affecting White communities. So, what does this commission task force mean to Black people?

D. Watkins–a prominent author and Professor at the University of Baltimore–came from a drug-laden neighborhood in East Baltimore. In a recent article published in Salon, Watkins remembers his early life as a drug dealer while addressing the current opioid epidemic in prominently White neighborhoods.

“White people and those in more privileged areas are starting to feel the same way. And even though I’d never wish that pain on anybody, I’m glad this problem is finally getting the attention it needs,” writes Watkins, while looking back on the crack cocaine epidemic and the Black communities that were destroyed. It is unfortunate that these problems are being addressed when the epidemic mainly affects White communities, but not when they effected Black communities.

Although this commission to end opioid addiction has yet to be fully developed, it is a start, at best. Unfortunately, Sessions does have the final say in all-things criminal justice related and he, historically, has a harsh stance against drugs. This is not to say Sessions does not believe in treatment programs, but he believes they come too late to solve the drug problem.

Time will only tell if these suggested programs will curb addictions, end prison overcrowding, and put a stop to racial disparities but, with Sessions in charge, the odds are not in our favor.  Fortunately, it is ultimately up to the states whether or not they choose to adopt federal criminal justice policies and, in the past, cities and states have supported initiatives to shorten prison sentences and favor prosecutors who are soft on crime. So, there may be hope after all.

Proud millennial, D.C. resident, and a firm believer in equity for all
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