Earl Ofari Hutchinson
It has got to be one of the great anomalies of the era. The most lawless president who has ever sat in the Oval Office. The most overt racially inflammatory president who has ever sat in the Oval Office. Yet, that president seemingly gets it right on criminal justice reform. The brutal portrait of American prison life is by now well known. There are more than 2 million inmates in the country’s state and federal pens. Legions of them are drug and petty offenders. Yet they have been warehoused there for years after being slapped with draconian sentences by judges who in many cases have no choice under the iron-encased sentence requirements but to impose the harsh sentences.
That’s only the start of the horror. Many have little education and skills and face the grim prospect of employers who avoid hiring them like the plague, parole officers who watch hawk like for any violation, and marginal access to reentry support programs. And to top it off, a pack of states that still rigidly bar ex-felons from the voting booth.
The ugly picture of American injustice wasn’t painted solely by hardline, conservative Republicans in Congress and state legislatures. There were a lot of Democrats who put their signature on the canvas. Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden still takes much heat for his backing of the Clinton Crime Bill in 1994. Despite the denials, recriminations and hand wringing, the blunt reality is that the bill did ignite the rush to mass incarceration as state and local judges, prosecutors, and police took the cue and ramped up their lock em up and toss the key policies in many states. Most of the members of The liberal, almost exclusively Democratic Congressional Black Caucus did their bit to make the stampede to incarcerate a blunt fact when they backed the bill. And of course, moderate Democratic President Clinton when all out in getting the bill through.
Faced with the Frankenstein horror of their creation over the years, most Democrats rushed, and that includes Biden more or less, to back pedal fast from the bill. The current crop of Democratic presidential candidates stumble over themselves to put a grab bag of criminal justice reform proposals on the table. Conservative republicans have chimed in to reverse course in the incarceration mania mostly because they are horrified at the idea of continuing to spend tens of millions to put and keep bunches of drug and petty offenders in state joints and then spending tens of millions more to build those joints.
Now along comes Trump in this muddle, and muddles things even more by doing something that few in their wildest fantasy could ever dream he’d do. That’s arm twist some hesitant Republicans to back the s First Step Act. The act mandates more education and training programs within and outside prisons for prisoners and ex-offenders and facilitates some early prisoner releases. Trump muddled things even more when he listened to Kim Kardashian and pardoned an African American mother serving a long stretch for drug trafficking. He blurts out here and there that he’ll pardon even more of these offenders.
There was no surprise then when Trump took a victory lap at the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum in Columbia, South Carolina. Yes, he stacked the deck there by packing it with his adoring supporters, and taking the obligatory crack, digs, and putdowns of Democrats, and puffing his ego narcissism up with the usual bloviate about how much he’s done for Blacks.
Strip the standard Trump ego puffery away and he does deserve some grudging credit for the reforms in the Act. The real question is what next? Trump will crow that he is a genuine criminal justice reformer but the proof of that is for him to put his executive muscle behind more reforms that are in the federal pipeline. They include doing away completely with minimum mandatory sentences for petty drug crimes, decriminalizing marijuana, a massive ramp up in skills training and education programs for inmates, and the expansion of reentry programs.
Trump hasn’t said much about taking the next step on the reform path. There’s really no reason to expect him too. He can continue to wave his push of the First Step Act through as one of the crowning achievements of his administration while reminding any who’ll listen that the Democrats are to blame for mass incarceration. Though it’s OK to give Trump a back pat for this, don’t go to far. This is far shrewder, stick your finger in the wind, cynical politics than any real belief by him that poor Blacks and Hispanics are getting a raw deal in the criminal justice system and that this failure needs to be finally corrected—by him.
Democratic presidential contenders moved quickly to snatch the mantle of justice reformer off Trump when they took the podium at the South Carolina Forum. But the brutal reality is that Trump shockingly did get it right about the First Step Act. Just don’t expect to be shocked by a second step from him.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on Pacifica Radio.