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.

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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.

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  1. More “journalism” as reported through a TDS filter…

  2. Trump appointed Barr and that’s the real shit not the bullshit that comes off the teleprompter.

    1. When Trump does something good it makes these weasels madder than if he did something bad.

  3. From the political standpoint, the Dems are out-competing the Reps on criminal justice reform by the simple device of being too crazy even for Republicans.

    In fact, the Dems are pushing the pendulum to the other extreme from excessive punitiveness. It’s like they miss the Seventies and that decade’s wonderful criminal justice reforms – you know, the reforms which provoked a punitive overreaction.

    If we go back to Seventies criminal-justice policies, will be go back to Seventies crime rates, too?

  4. That Super Bowl ad was pretty powerful. It made even my wife begrudgingly admit he had done at least one good thing.

    I hope he and his advisors really believe this cause is a winner, because all of a sudden, he looks like he’s taking the high road, while Pelosi tears up his speech on national TV.

    1. Yeah, when that ad played during the Super Bowl, I said to my wife and kids, “That is some powerful shit.” Republicans might wish Trump’s handlers would muzzle him on Twitter and television, but whoever is running his reelection campaign is doing a masterful job. He is going to mop the floor with the Democrats.

      1. There aren’t enough deplorables — half-educated bigots, disaffected clingers, superstitious slack-jaws, shambling hayseeds — left in America to put Trump in good position for another trick shot at the Electoral College.

        Our electorate gets less white, less rural, less white, less bigoted, less white, less religious, and less backward each day. Cranky old conservatives take their stale thinking to the grave and are replaced by better, younger, decent Americans. A Hispanic American turns 18 every 30 seconds. It’s a clingapocalyse.

        1. Less white doesn’t mean “more retarded.” Now go suck on a handgun.

  5. Wow, Ciaramella is really mad that it’s Trump who’s doing this and not a Democrat.

    1. Ciaramella may be working for a pre-pardon for a kinsman.

  6. I enjoyed the speech, especially the end with where he talked about the future. The idea of us going back into space, of looking forward technologically as a nation and with a goal to strive for, was something I think we need. All that being said though, Rush Limbaugh getting a medal for being a political radio host? Guy’s a big name, I give him that, and it’s not like I hate him, but I’m not really sure he’s done anything that’s specifically medal-worthy, reminded me a little bit of Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize. And the last thing we need is to start a precedent of handing out medals like candy to reporters for tossing around political bias.

    That being said, the look on his face though when Trump announced that was nice, he was obviously not expecting it at all.

    1. Trump obnoxiously teabagged every leftist on earth by giving that to Limbaugh, and I laughed till my sides hurt.

      1. Trump gave Limbaugh a Medal of Freedom. God gave Limbaugh lung cancer.

        Some would say that the lung cancer, after the failed and barren marriages and the addiction to street pills, was overkill. Those people are pussies.

        1. God should give you the courage to kill yourself.

    2. Regardless of whether he actually merits our nation’s highest civilian honor, reducing a career blowhard like Limbaugh to tears in front of a national audience was a brilliant move. I’m a little surprised that Trump was able to pull the surprise off, though, considering he had announced his attention to bestow the honor at his private pre-address luncheon with reporters, a fact that CNN reported on their website, huffing in a fit of passive-aggressive pique:

      People close to Trump say he personally enjoys granting his friends the nation’s highest civilian honor. He bestowed the award upon seven recipients in 2019, and several more the year prior.
      Like presidents before him, Trump invites anchors from all the major networks to dine with him at the White House in advance of his State of the Union address. The conversation is considered off the record, but CNN was excluded this year, and therefore did not agree to the mandate. Other anchors did attend the lunch.

      If you ever wondered whether reporters from national networks can sound like miffed adolescent teenage girls, now you know.

      1. hahaha, oh, I know they can, it isn’t the first time CNN’s thrown a hissy fit over something. And Rush has got a good chance of not being around in a year, it is kind of brilliant to use this to reward him while he’s still around.

  7. Is this the article that will be the inflection point of reasons Angle changing from “trump can’t do anything good” to “trump did good, but he could’ve done better”?

    Is reason realizing their readership is declining leading into a massive election and maybe they might not want to alienate a large portion of their readers by spouting tds laden drivel each day?

    Nah, probably not.

  8. How ridiculous is this statement:
    “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.”

    Because the DOJ announced in July:
    “Over 3,100 federal prison inmates will be released from the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) custody as a result of the increase in good conduct time under the Act. In addition, the Act’s retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (reducing the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine threshold amounts triggering mandatory minimum sentences) has resulted in 1,691 sentence reductions.”

    Any rational commentor would applaud using a systematic formula defined by statute the make these criminal Justice reforms rather than a piecemeal Presidential pardon process, especially since while most of these people don’t deserve to be in jail, they probably don’t deserve presidential pardons either.

    But Reason would have you believe that only 6 people have been freed as part of Trump’s sentence reform efforts, rather than 3106.

    1. Wait.. did you expect reason to actually act like old school journalists and research their articles? Where have you been? Of it isn’t on Twitter, they dont know shit.

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