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November 19, 2023

You be the political operative: should Donald Trump lean into his sentencing reform record?

The New York Times has this notable new piece, headlined "Pardon Recipients Seek to Sell Trump on His Own Sentencing Law," which prompts the question in the title of this post.  The article meanders a good bit, and it does not really get that deep into either modern sentencing policy and politics.  But, with now less than a year until the 2024 election, it serves as a useful reminder that there will be lots of sentencing policy and politics worth discussing in coming months.  Here are excerpts:

In early July, former President Donald J. Trump received a somewhat unlikely visitor at his golf club and estate in Bedminster, N.J.: Michael Harris, the founder of Death Row Records, who had been imprisoned for drug trafficking and attempted murder, came to meet privately with the man who had pardoned him....

Mr. Harris is the type of high-profile Black celebrity that some Trump associates hope will next year highlight the former president’s signature criminal justice reform law, the First Step Act, which was one of Mr. Kushner’s key priorities during his time as an adviser in the White House.

Although Mr. Harris is not a beneficiary of the sentencing law, having received his pardon on Mr. Trump’s last full day in office after serving decades in prison as part of a series of clemency grants, he has nonetheless become an evangelist for it....

Mr. Harris declined to discuss what took place in their meeting, but he expressed gratitude toward the Trump administration in a statement and praised the sentencing law. “The passing of the First Step Act and similar initiatives surrounding” criminal justice reform “has provided much needed relief for so many deserving individuals and families,” he said....

Not everyone around the former president believes that he should highlight the First Step Act, which Mr. Trump himself soured on soon after signing it. Mr. Trump, who is often influenced by what he thinks his core voters want, felt affirmed in that view after a number of hard-core Republicans began to criticize it in 2021 and 2022 amid a rise in crime. Some of his conservative associates, who see the bill as problematic with Republicans, said privately that they were unhappy that he had met with Mr. Harris....

He has also grown increasingly violent in his rhetoric about crime in America, saying that he admires the freedom that despots have to execute drug dealers and that shoplifters should be shot on the spot.

At the same time, he has made clear that he viewed the law, which, among other things, sought to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, as something that should have won him support from Black voters.  “Did it for African Americans,” he wrote to this reporter for a book in 2022 when asked about his repeated expressions of regret about the law. “Nobody else could have gotten it done.  Got zero credit.”...

It remains to be seen how willing Mr. Trump will be, if at all, to speak about the criminal justice law, or whether Mr. Harris might be asked to speak publicly.

The same week that Mr. Harris met with Mr. Trump, the former president received a call from Alice Johnson, whose life sentence on charges related to cocaine possession and money laundering was commuted after a meeting between Mr. Trump and the celebrity Kim Kardashian. Ms. Johnson was the person who recommended to Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump that Mr. Harris be granted clemency.

“My whole conversation was just encouragement” about the criminal justice reform bill, said Ms. Johnson, who spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2020 and was pardoned by Mr. Trump a short time later. She said no one had asked her to call him or engage in politics for him next year. But, she added, “he actually is proud of that piece of legislation.”

The title of this post reflects my sense that former Prez Trump himself seems to approach sentencing issues (like many others) through the lens of a political operative.  Though a variety of his actions and statements reflect a "tough on crime" posture, Trump proved while he was president that he would be willing to support reforms if he thought there could be potential political advantage therein.  What this exactly this might mean for Trump and the GOP going forward on a wide range of criminal justice issues, especially with Trump himself subject to multiple criminal indictments, remains to be seen.

November 19, 2023 at 09:35 AM | Permalink

Comments

During the Republican primaries, obviously not.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Nov 23, 2023 8:12:04 PM

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