Trump’s criminal justice policy, explained

President Donald Trump is trying to refashion his 2020 presidential campaign into a 1980s-style “tough on crime” platform. He’s now tweeted “LAW & ORDER!” with no context more than a dozen times. He’s gone to Kenosha, Wisconsin, the site of recent protests and riots after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, only to deflect questions about whether systemic racism is real, argue that people “want the police to be police,” and condemn “dangerous anti-police rhetoric.”

It’s a gamble that seeks to mask Trump’s failures on Covid-19. But if it works to get Trump reelected, it could damage or reverse efforts to reform America’s criminal justice system — even as people continue to march in the streets against police brutality, mass incarceration, and the systemic racism enshrined in both.

Trump has promoted “tough on crime” policies not just since his run for president in 2015 and 2016, but in the decades before. In 1989, Trump ran a local ad calling for the death penalty for the “Central Park Five,” who were falsely accused of attacking and raping a jogger in New York City. In 2000, Trump claimed in his book, The America We Deserve, “Tough crime policies are the most important form of national defense.” He also stated, “Clearly we don’t have too many people in prison. Quite the contrary.”

On the campaign trail last time around, Trump in 2015 argued that “we have to get a lot tougher” on crime. In 2017, he advocated for police being rougher during arrests, claiming he’s told cops, “Please, don’t be too nice.”

Trump’s administration has subsequently ended investigations into local and state police departments accused of misconduct, arguing that cops shouldn’t be shackled by the federal government. It has encouraged federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest possible sentences, including more punitive punishments for lower-level offenses and the death penalty for drug crimes. And it has restarted federal executions.

Trump’s second-term agenda makes zero mention of any kind of criminal justice reform, whether for incarceration or policing. Instead, one section, titled “DEFEND OUR POLICE,” promises more police officers, stricter penalties for assaults on cops, prosecuting drive-by shootings as domestic terrorism, going after “Violent Extremist Groups Like ANTIFA,” and reversing reforms to end cash bail.

As he runs for that second term, Trump has occasionally touted outliers in his record. Trump did sign criminal justice reform, the First Step Act, into law. He commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, who previously received a life sentence for her role in a cocaine trafficking ring, and later pardoned her. These appear to be contradictions, but in context they seem more like the result of personal favors: The First Step Act was pushed by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Johnson’s commutation by celebrity Kim Kardashian.

“I view that [the First Step Act] as just the outlier on what would otherwise be a truly abysmal record on criminal justice issues,” Rachel Barkow, a criminal justice expert at New York University, told me.

There’s a racial element to all of this. When literal neo-Nazis and KKK members march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one of them murders a counter-protester, “law and order” suddenly became “very fine people on both sides.” When a white 17-year-old is charged with murder for killing two people at a Black Lives Matter protest, Trump goes from shouting about chaos and lawlessness in major cities to actually defending a specific act of violence classified as a crime. As was true from the 1970s to the ’90s, “tough on crime” seems geared toward targeting a specific segment of the population with what’s euphemistically called “law and order” more than following a literal interpretation of these phrases.

The social or policy outcomes may not matter to Trump. His main goal is to get reelected, and he will say and do anything he thinks will work toward that goal. A message of “law and order” is meant to appeal to a base with racist views about crime and minority communities — as it has in the past — while maybe grabbing some voters who are genuinely concerned about murders, riots, and disorder in American cities.

If that message contradicts Trump’s support of the First Step Act or Alice Johnson, his campaign doesn’t seem to care, especially if they can still use the First Step Act and Johnson’s commutation to draw minority voters and reassure Trump-skeptical Republicans.

Still, there are possible policy repercussions. Trump has promised to double down on the same “tough on crime” policies that he and his administration have tried to carry out in his first term. If that happens, those policies will, based on the evidence, do little to stop and reduce crime — but could continue to, as such policies have for decades, enable aggressive policing in minority…

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