At Friday's White House summit on prison reform, President Trump sought to balance his law-and-order philosophy with the wishes of those who view former inmates more compassionately.
“There is no substitute for personal accountability, and there is no tolerance for those who take advantage of society's generosity to prey upon the innocent,” Trump said. “But if we want more prisoners to take charge of their own lives, then we should work to give them the tools to stand on their own two feet.”
Congress is considering legislation that aims to reduce prison recidivism rates, in part by allowing prisoners to finish their sentences in a halfway house, at home or under community supervision as long as they complete job training, drug treatment, education and other programs. Trump promised to sign a prison reform bill that helps former inmates transition back into society.
The mass incarceration complex is of great interest to black Americans given how disproportionately imprisoned black Americans are, which could explain why hip-hop artist Meek Mill, who was released on bail last month after being sentenced for violating probation, originally agreed to participate in the event at the White House.
But Meek Mill — whose real name is Robert Rihmeek Williams — told Rolling Stone that he backed out after becoming a distraction.
“I was originally scheduled to be part of a panel on prison reform at the White House to help shed light on the issues within the system,” the rapper said in a statement to Rolling Stone.
“Unfortunately, the focus turned to the President and myself, which concerned me that it might take away from creating a positive result from today's discussions. As a result, I decided not to attend so that the focus would be solely on fixing our prison system.”
It’s not surprising that a rapper associating with the Trump White House was becoming a distraction.
Trump called out hip-hop mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter on Twitter in January after the rapper criticized how the president speaks about black people and their communities. And earlier this month, Trump credited Kanye West’s support of him to a jump in support from black voters in one outlier poll.
While Carter — who endorsed Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton — was generally applauded by his fans following his critique of Trump, West was heavily criticized for affirming things about Trump that many in his fan base found troublesome.
Perhaps Williams, who is hoping to reestablish his career, was trying to avoid a similar association.
Some conservative activists and media blamed Carter, who has spoken out on the need for criminal justice reform, for Williams’s exit after an initial report from TMZ. But the media outlet later reported that a source close to Carter said he did not force or even persuade Williams to cancel the White House trip and that Williams made the decision after talking to several people.
While much attention has been paid to Williams's withdrawal from the White House event, few seem to have asked what role Trump and his administration played in making the pursuit of certain policy solutions so unattractive for many, particularly black Americans, that they don’t even want to sit at the table with the president.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, Trump spent much of his first year rolling back advancements made by the Obama administration related to criminal justice reform and could end up ballooning the prison population. The center released a report after Trump's first year that states:
“They have used short memoranda or subtle changes in enforcement strategy to quietly undo much of President Barack Obama’s criminal justice reform legacy. In its place, they have built a more draconian vision of law enforcement, centered around immigration. While many of these changes occurred without drawing public scrutiny, consequences have already begun to materialize in areas such as immigration enforcement. Over the next three years, these shifts could cause the federal prison population to begin increasing again, reversing what small progress had been made to reduce federal over-incarceration. Further, the administration’s words and deeds on criminal justice could disrupt bipartisan efforts to build a fairer, more effective justice system at the state and local levels.”
These types of moves do not increase the confidence that activists concerned about criminal justice and prison reform have in this administration.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, told The Washington Post in January:
“We are seeing the most anti-civil-rights administration in modern American history,” he said. “There has been an outright effort by the administration to reverse many gains that we made. It has eliminated the progress we've made on criminal justice reform.”
“I'm one who always believes there's room for reconciliation, but it would require an effort by the president to educate himself on black America,” Morial added. “The public utterances seem to be more caught up in negative racial stereotypes and paranoia.”
Ultimately, there are more questions than answers about what prison reform could look like under the administration of a president who counts private prison companies among some of his top campaign donors and who has not given any specifics on what he wants in a bill. But his commitment to giving former inmates the opportunity to achieve the American Dream will soon be put to the test if Congress is able to get on the same page enough to send him a bill.