Trump’s record brims with proposals and policies that enrage civil rights activists and negatively affect African Americans. With diverse groups of demonstrators in every state taking to the streets to protest police violence and systemic racism, it’s time to look at the administration’s record on criminal justice issues.
There is good news.
Trump signed the bipartisan First Step Act in 2018. Among other things, it aimed to lessen the overincarceration of black people and the racially disparate impact of federal criminal justice practices by reducing some mandatory minimum sentences. The Bureau of Prisons was instructed to improve and expand inmate rehabilitation programs and prohibit the shackling of pregnant prisoners.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, called the measure “a major win for the movement to end mass incarceration.” Trump gushed over the legislation, saying it gives “countless current and former prisoners a second chance at life and a new opportunity to contribute to their communities, their states and their nations.”
But for civil rights analysts, what the First Step Act gives doesn’t make up for what Trump has taken away.
“The administration loves to take credit for signing the First Step Act into law,” said Connor Maxwell, who until Tuesday was a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, “but in reality [the Trump administration] has undone decades of progress and contributed to the national crisis we’re in now.”
Among the administration’s actions riling civil rights and criminal justice advocates:
●The Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention diminished a research program that sought to eliminate the overincarceration of black and Latino youths compared with their white counterparts. States receiving grants no longer have to provide specific data on black and brown youth arrests and convictions to determine whether there is "disproportionate minority contact" with law enforcement. Instead, state officials — according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization focusing on criminal justice — are asked less detailed questions that fail to specifically address the problem. A Justice Department statement said a research unit was moved from one office to another "to improve coordination and support the development of a coherent and broad research agenda."
●The juvenile justice office also withdrew training manuals used by local officials to reduce racial disparities in the name of cutting regulations, the Marshall Project reported. The Justice Department said that a tool to monitor youth contact with law enforcement was removed from the agency’s website “based on new legal guidance” and that data collection requirements were simplified.
●A 2017 Trump executive order allowing police departments to get federal military equipment. The order overturned a policy President Barack Obama implemented after an uproar against the use of what he called “militarized gear” against crowds protesting the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teen, in Ferguson, Mo. Trump, referring to his executive order and other actions later that year, said he “promised to restore law and order to our country. . . . We will spare no resource in fighting, so that every American child can grow up free from violence and fear.”
●The sharp reduction of the Justice Department’s “pattern-or-practice” investigations of certain police departments to determine how often they use force, what kind of force and whether that force is used excessively against black people.
●The slashing of the use of consent decrees, court-approved agreements between the Justice Department and local police agencies accused of excessive force, often against black residents. The agreements were designed to reform police practices and improve community relations.
Investigations can lead to decrees. The Trump administration has initiated one pattern-or-practice investigation and no consent decrees. Attorney General William P. Barr told CBS News “you can actually get more focused change and more real change by working in more collaboration with the police. . . . We are working with police departments to address use-of-force policies, personnel policies, standards and practices . . . without the collateral effects that some of these consent decrees have,” such as having “police pull back” from their duties.
Vanita Gupta, who led pattern-or-practice investigations and consent decrees as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division in the Obama administration, rejects that. “The Trump administration’s record on the criminal legal system reform is abysmal,” said Gupta, now the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Although the First Step Act moves away from mandatory minimum sentences, she cited the administration’s encouragement of the toughest possible penalties, its plans to increase private prison use and other factors as counters to Trump’s praise for the law.
“Trump himself has also called for police to rough up suspects, threatened protesters with military response and has halted police reform and accountability for unconstitutional conduct,” she said.
The widely touted First Step Act “is an anomaly against the backdrop of how his administration . . . has systematically undone almost all existing federal reform efforts,” Gupta added. “The First Step Act doesn’t erase any of this long record of dismantling criminal justice reform.”