State of the Union

Trump Is Making Criminal Justice Reform a Theme of his Campaign

But he'll have to do more than coast on a few commendable pardons if he wants to prove he's serious.


Donald Trump once again touted his embrace of some criminal justice reforms at tonight's State of the Union speech, suggesting that it may be a theme in the early part of his re-election campaign.

"Our roaring economy has, for the first time ever, given many former prisoners the ability to get a great job and a fresh start," Trump said. "This second chance at life is made possible because we passed landmark criminal justice reform into law. Everybody said that criminal justice reform could not be done, but I got it done, and the people in this room got it done."

Trump was referring to the FIRST STEP Act, a modest but still significant criminal justice bill passed by Congress in late 2018, after months of political wrangling and lobbying by advocates to get the president on board.

The statements come after Trump's presidential campaign ran an ad during Sunday's Super Bowl featuring Alice Johnson, a grandmother who was formerly serving life in federal prison for drug conspiracy charges. In 2018, Trump commuted her sentence after reality TV megastar Kim Kardashian West traveled to the White House to lobby on Johnson's behalf.

The ad and Trump's statements are a notable turnabout for the president, who campaigned in 2016 on a tough-on-crime platform and then appointed Jeff Sessions, a notorious opponent of criminal justice reform, as attorney general.

The New York Times reported today that the ad was also an attempt by Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner to make inroads with black voters as the 2020 election approaches.

But as The Washington Post reported this week, while Trump has soaked up the positive press he received for signing the FIRST STEP Act and commuting Johnson's sentence—he, in fact, argues he doesn't get enough credit for it—he has doled out precious few pardons, almost all of them in cases where someone managed to launch a personal appeal to him.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which handles official clemency petitions and advises the White House on them, "has become a bureaucratic way station," the Post reports. The office currently has a backlog of nearly 13,000 petitions.

As I noted when Kardashian West visited the White House, "it's a not great state of affairs when you need a massive celebrity to get the attention of the president and fix gross injustices."

Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote this week that "Trump's concern about 'very unfair' drug sentences seems sincere, if intermittent and inconsistent":

So far Trump has commuted just six sentences, including Johnson's and one other drug offender's. But that is actually six times as many commutations as Obama approved during his first term. Trump could still do much more good with his clemency powers if he is re-elected and puts his mind to it. Whether he is inclined to do that is another question.

Trump also touted the passage of the FIRST STEP Act, as well as Alice Johnson's pardon, in 2019's State of the Union speech. If he wants to be able to brag that he actually reformed the criminal justice system, he'll have to do more than just play the hits once a year.