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.” This was part of his broader economic and public safety agendas.
In December 2018 the president signed the First Step Act into law. Congressional passage of the legislation came with overwhelming bipartisan support. Trump now claims it as one of his signature legislative accomplishments.
The First Step Act attempts to bring a problem solving approach to the federal criminal justice system. It requires federal prison officials to use objective risk assessment tools. Taxpayers must pay for them to analyze each federal inmate’s risk of re-offending once released.
The new layer of bureaucracy uses metrics such as substance abuse habits, mental health issues, lack of job skills, and anger management problems.
The law authorizes officials to categorize individuals then assign them to prison programs. The programs are designed to help them address their struggles. The intention is to reduce the likelihood they will return to crime.
Cost shifting is not criminal justice
The new programs will be bought in part by private, religious, and nonprofit organizations. By participating, certain inmates will have the chance to earn time credits. They can use the time credits to acquire early transfer from prison to a halfway house, supervised release, or home confinement.
Understand this. The program is about shifting cost. The rest is side benefit… promotional talking points.
The First Step Act was based on state-level criminal justice reforms. The assertion is they are reducing costs and improving outcomes. Promoters point to Mississippi. The assertion is the state reduced crime rates by 6% and saved taxpayers $40 million.
Texas is expanding mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. It is reducing prison sentences for drug offenders. Promoters claim to be seeing crime rates drop to the lowest level in half a century.
The Pew Charitable Trusts notes that between 2008 and 2013, the states that were most effective at reducing crime are those finding ways to reform their criminal justice policies and reduce imprisonment rates. But the question should be are anti-social behaviors really changing?
Or are we changing the charging system and diverting drug offenders?
Reclassifying the statistics allows manipulation of the prison system discussion. That is what we are looking at. Not societal change. Refurbishing the justice in criminal justice needs to serve… who?
The act also reformed a number of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The reclassification led to disproportionate sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. The term disproportionate is a reformers term, code for in this case, we want to decriminalize drugs. Understand this there is a lot of drug money benefited by the effort.
Actions and mechanics
These reforms include making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive. The Fair Sentencing Act reduces the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. According to the Department of Justice, as of April 2019, the reform “ha[d] resulted in 826 sentence reductions and 643 early releases.” The federal government did a dump of drug offenders back onto the streets.
The First Step Act was a major victory for “meaningful” criminal justice reform at the federal level. It is not the administration’s only such move. Trump also began to use his executive power to grant pardons. He began sentence commutations to individuals he believes were the victims of injustices.
During the first two years of his term, Trump issued seven pardons and four-sentence commutations. These include a posthumous pardon for the late boxing great Jack Johnson. Johnson was the victim of a racially discriminatory prosecution. He also is responsible for the commutation of Alice Johnson.
Civil asset forfeiture
The Trump administration bought into criminal justice reform with respect to drugs. It is not embracing reform of civil asset forfeiture which may actually be the lower-profile but more important issue. There are areas where refurbishing the justice does make good sense.
Civil asset forfeiture is the law enforcement tool authorizes the seizure of property. It also applies to currency suspected of being either criminal proceeds or instrumentalities. It has been properly and broadly criticized for its perverse financial incentives. More importantly it has insufficient protection of due process. There are many and notable abuses.
To date, 32 states have reformed or abolished the practice. This should be a message to Congress about the flawed nature of the program. Nearly two thirds of the states have acted but congress fails to see the need.
Early in the Trump administration the Attorney General Sessions reinstated “adoptive forfeiture.” This is a highly controversial civil forfeiture practice. It has been widely criticized for undercutting the state reforms. It financially encourages state and local agencies to circumvent protective state laws.