Criminal Justice

Trump Might Not Support Criminal Justice Reforms Anymore. That Doesn't Erase His Past Success.

We probably won’t see a follow up to the FIRST STEP Act. But it’s still been a boon to federal prisoners.

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Does it matter whether President Donald Trump actually supports criminal justice reform as long as he signs the relevant bills into law?

That's the focus of an insidery Politico piece by Gabby Orr and Daniel Lippman, which features anonymous people connected to Trump saying that the president thinks the important reforms of the FIRST STEP Act are a "dud" because it doesn't motivate his voters and the Democrats want credit for the bill.

The FIRST STEP Act was a bipartisan affair, signed into law by Trump, but hammered out by reform-minded members of Congress and pushed by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and celebrity Kim Kardashian. The FIRST STEP Act reduced some federal mandatory minimum sentences, including some retroactively, and increased the amount of "good time" credits inmates can earn to get out of prison earlier (the federal prison system does not offer parole).

The law has benefited thousands of federal prisoners, according to stats released in July by the Department of Justice. Trump has made note of the FIRST STEP Act in some speeches. But according to Politico, he doesn't actually care that much about it and is not happy that he might not benefit politically from its passage, while Democrats might. As Politico notes:

Kushner, whose own father spent more than a year in federal prison, worked closely with Democratic and Republican senators to get the criminal justice reform bill over the finish line last year—often telling his tough-on-crime boss it was worth expending political capital to seize a rare opportunity to overcome the deeply partisan divide on Capitol Hill and solidify his image as a pragmatic dealmaker.

But now, Trump "is telling people he's mad" at how criminal justice reform has panned out, according to a person close to the president. "He's really mad that he did it. He's saying that he's furious at Jared because Jared is telling him he's going to get all these votes of all these felons."

Color me less than outraged. Trump is only saying the kind of thing out loud that other politicians would have the good sense to keep to themselves, even though their motivations would not be that different. Trump is an openly transactional politician—he wants to benefit in some way from his political decisions. Certainly, the members of Congress who actually hammered out the FIRST STEP Act are also hoping to get credit from voters when re-election time comes around. And Democratic challengers to Trump are wheeling out their own criminal justice reform packages in the hopes of winning over voters.

CNN pundit and criminal justice reform activist Van Jones sees these anonymous whispers as coming from folks in Trump's orbit who never supported the FIRST STEP Act in the first place and are happy to put out the message that these types of bills are not in Trump's interest. Here's what he told Politico:

"There's always been a bunch of people in the building, they didn't like it before, during or after, and they've always been able to leak out anonymous bullshit quotes that then very quickly have egg on their faces because Trump does something else positive in this direction of throws in another line in a speech," said Jones, who confirmed that Trump has been frustrated with the lack of credit he's received.

It may be true that Trump is unhappy that his signing of the FIRST STEP Act doesn't give him political ownership of criminal justice reform, and it may well mean that we'll see no more such reforms under Trump. But the FIRST STEP Act did, in fact, get signed, and it has made life better for thousands. That's what matters. Let's not clutch our collective pearls that a president's support for a law is significantly influenced by the political advantages he hopes to gain from signing it.