This article is an excerpt from the “2020 Mandate for Leadership: A Clear Vision for the Next Administration.” It looks back at policy decisions made by the Trump administration over the past four years. You can purchase your copy of “Mandate 2020” here.
As part of his broader economic and public safety agendas, President Donald Trump promised in his first State of the Union address to “embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance at life.”
The administration has brought some meaningful reform to the federal criminal justice system. At the same time, the president has used his executive authority to grant clemency to a number of individuals that he believed had received disproportionate sentences or were victims of unjust prosecutions.
The First Step Act brings a problem-solving approach to the federal criminal justice system. It requires federal prison officials to use objective risk assessment tools to analyze each federal inmate’s risk of recidivating once released.
Using metrics such as substance abuse habits, mental health issues, lack of job skills, and anger management problems, the law authorizes officials to categorize individuals and assign them to prison programs that are designed to help them address their struggles and reduce the likelihood that they will return to crime.
These new programs will be offered in part by private, religious, and nonprofit organizations. By participating, certain inmates will have the chance to earn time credits that can be redeemed for early transfer from prison to a halfway house, supervised release, or home confinement.
The First Step Act was based on state-level criminal justice reforms that have resulted in reduced costs and improved outcomes. For example:
- Mississippi has reduced crime rates by 6% and saved taxpayers $40 million.
- Texas has expanded mental health and substance abuse treatment programs and reduced prison sentences for drug offenders, all while seeing crime rates drop to the lowest level in half a century.
- In fact, the Pew Charitable Trusts identified a trend among states: Between 2008 and 2013, the states that were most effective at reducing crime were those that found ways to reform their criminal justice policies and reduce imprisonment rates.
The act also reformed a number of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws that led to disproportionate sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
These reforms included making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing, retroactive. According to the Department of Justice, as of April 2019, that reform “ha[d] resulted in 826 sentence reductions and 643 early releases.”
The First Step Act was a major victory for meaningful criminal justice reform at the federal level, but it was not the administration’s only such move. Trump also began to use his executive power to grant pardons and sentence commutations to individuals whom he believed were the victims of injustices.
During the first two years of his term, Trump issued seven pardons and four sentence commutations. These included a posthumous pardon for the late boxing great Jack Johnson, who was the victim of a racially discriminatory prosecution, and the commutation of Alice Johnson.
Unfortunately, despite its commitment to criminal justice reform, the Trump administration has not embraced reform of civil asset forfeiture.
Civil forfeiture—the law enforcement tool that authorizes the seizure of property or currency suspected of being either criminal proceeds or instrumentalities—has been broadly criticized for its perverse financial incentives, insufficient protection of due process, and notable abuses.
To date, 32 states have reformed or abolished the practice, but Congress has yet to act, and early in the Trump administration, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions reinstated a highly controversial civil forfeiture practice known as “adoptive forfeitures,” which has been widely criticized for undercutting those state reforms by financially encouraging state and local agencies to circumvent protective state laws.