Sunday, May 26, 2024

Any suggestions for whom else Donald Trump might pledge to free from federal prison "on day one" back in the Oval Office?

A few months ago, Donald Trump pledged on Truth Social that among his "first acts as your next President will be to ... Free the January 6 Hostages being wrongfully imprisoned!"   And, in a speech last night, as covered in this post, Trump sought to garner support from a libertarian crowd by announcing "If you vote for me, on day one I will commute the sentence of Ross Ulbricht, to a sentence of time served."

These clemency pledges got me to thinking that notable political contingents, or maybe even just a few key folks in a key swing state, might be able to cajole Trump into pledging to use his clemency pen a particular way.  Former NFL star Antonio Brown seemingly figured this out already, as this Fox News piece highlights he has been praising and pitching Trump on clemency fronts.  For example, given that supporters of Marilyn Mosby have so far had no success getting Joe Biden to grant her clemency, perhaps they ought to make a run at getting Trump to pledge clemency for her.   

The Mosby (tongue-in-cheek) idea aside, I do not think it would be foolish at all for Trump to seek to garner attention and favor from certain voters through clemency pledges.  Many criminal justice reform advocates have been quite disappointed that Joe Biden has not used his clemency pen more robustly and broadly.  Polling data suggests that young people and people of color are especially interested in criminal justice reform, and astute clemency pledges could make these important voting blocks take notice.

So, dear readers, any (specific or general) suggestions for whom else Donald Trump might pledge to free from federal prison "on day one" back in the Oval Office?

May 26, 2024 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (14)

Homicides still way down as weather (and crime politics) heats up in 2024

A few days ago, I received an alert from my local paper about this article reporting that "data from the Columbus Division of Police showed that the city is experiencing some of the lowest levels of violence in a decade."  According to this press piece, the biggest city in Ohio has recorded only 18 murders in this calendar year, compared to 41 at this time last year.  The article also flagged that a number of other cities have also seen significant homicide declines.  

Conveniently and encouragingly, Jeff Asher posted yesterday this new substack entry detailing that Columbus, Ohio is not alone in experiencing a significant homicide decline to start 2024.  Folks should read his full posting for lots more context and details, but here are some highlights:

[M]urder is down around 20 percent in 2024 in more than 180 cities with available data this year compared to a comparable timeframe last year (as of the moment of this piece's publication).  Murder is down 20.5 percent in 183 cities with available data through at least January, down 20.2 percent in 174 cities with data through at least February, and down 20.8 percent in 59 cities with data through at least March 20....

We could still see, and perhaps should expect to see the sample's murder decline to regress towards a more normal rate of decline as the year goes on.  It's only April and there is a ton of time left in 2024 for these figures to regress, but murder is down roughly twice as much with a sample that’s twice as large as what we had last year at this time.... Murder is down more than 30 percent at the moment in Washington DC, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, Philadelphia, and I could keep going....

It's not just murder data in cities pointing to a large decline.  Shooting data from the Gun Violence Archive shows a decline of around 12 percent in terms of shooting victims through March compared to 2023.  This matches the trend of declining shootings in 20 of the 25 cities with available shooting data through at least February this year. 

As readers may recall from prior posts, 2023 brought a considerable (perhaps historic) decline in homicides in the US compared to 2022 (which saw a small decline in homicides after very significant increases in homicides throughout the US in 2020 and 2021).  And my check today at the latest AH Datalytics' collection of homicide data for 2024 from 250+ US cities shows now an 18.8% cumulative decline(!) in murders across the nation's cities through more than the first third of 2024.  And a number of big cities are showing even bigger 2024 declines from police reports: Washington DC and Milwaukee homicides are down around 25%; Cleveland, Dallas and Phoenix homicides are down nearly 30%; Baltimore, Columbus, New Orleans and Philadelphia homicides are down more than 40%.

I am not sure criminologists have a clear story for why we are not seeing historicthe  homicide declines, but the many hundreds of fewer murders to start 2024 is certainly something to celebrate and to hope continue.  (I noted in a prior post that the 2023 and 2024 declines in homicide come at a time of relatively low use of the death penalty and relatively lower rates of incarceration by US standards.)  Of course, these remarkable homicide numbers could change in the months ahead, and the hotter weather of summer months historically bring an uptick in homicides.

Also sure to heat up this summer are crime politics.  I flagged in this post yesterday a recent Politico article quoting aides of President Biden suggesting the Pesident was planning to embrace tougher approaches on crime and immigration.  And today bring this lengthy New York Times piece headlined "Even as Violent Crime Drops, Lawlessness Rises as an Election Issue."  Here is a small excerpt:

Homicide rates are tumbling from pandemic highs in most cities, funding for law enforcement is rising, and tensions between the police and communities of color, while still significant, are no longer at a boiling point. But property crime, carjackings and smash-and-grab burglaries are up, adding to a sense of lawlessness, amplified on social media and local online message boards.

Mr. Trump is re-upping his blunt, visceral appeal to voter anxieties. He declared recently that “crime is rampant and out of control like never before,” promised to shoot shoplifters, embraced the “back the blue” slogan against liberal changes to police departments — and even falsely accused the F.B.I. of fabricating positive crime data to bolster Mr. Biden.

Mr. Biden, in response, is taking a more low-key approach.  He has spotlighted improving violent crime rates, promoted vast increases in funding to law enforcement under his watch and pointed to an aggressive push on gun control, as well as a revived effort to hold local departments accountable for discriminatory and dangerous policing practices in Black and brown neighborhoods. 

May 26, 2024 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (19)

Monday, March 11, 2024

A "ratchet ... not a pendulum"?: taking stock of latest round of criminal justice reforms

USA Today has this notable lengthy new piece reviewing recent criminal justice reforms that are taking a tougher approach to crime and punishments.  The piece, which i recommend in full, is headlined "'A stunning turnabout': Voters and lawmakers across US move to reverse criminal justice reform."  Here are some excerpts, along with a closing quote that informs the title of this post:

Less than four years after George Floyd's murder sparked a mass awakening to the inequities of the criminal justice system, political leaders across the country are returning to a tough-on-crime approach. In some cases, voters and lawmakers are opting to reverse reforms passed years ago.

San Francisco voted Tuesday in support of two propositions that give more power to police and require addiction treatment as a condition for welfare assistance. D.C. Council members also passed a package of public safety measures Tuesday, including bringing back "drug-free zones." The Tuesday votes follow movements to roll back reforms in Louisiana and Oregon.

"It's a stunning turnabout, especially so soon after the wave of national protests against the system for being too harsh," says Adam Gelb, President and CEO of the nonpartisan think tank Council on Criminal Justice. Though the 50-year-pattern of reform and restrictions for may seem like we are headed back to highly punitive policies, Gelb said that isn't the full picture. "I think there's very little chance that we return fully to the notion that we can arrest and punish our way to safety."

Gelb said the pattern like a pendulum swinging between restriction and reform starts as early as the 60s when a wave of reform led into a spike in crime in the 70s. The 80s brought in the crack crisis and a "get tough era," Gelb said. Over the next three decades, mandatory sentencing, a boom in prison development and harsher drug enforcement tactics led to a ballooning in the prison population....

Efforts to reduce those populations had bipartisan support, as can be seen by the 2018 First Step Act to improve criminal justice outcomes while keeping crime low, which former President Donald Trump signed into law. But even before that, the Pew Trust reported that more than 30 states had passed laws to reduce the prison populations between 2007 and 2017....

While national data on crime rates is notoriously difficult to track, statistics collected and analyzed from cities across the U.S. show a spike of violent offenses and drop in property crime during the pandemic. But that data, compiled by the CCJ, suggests that most types of crime are reverting back towards pre-pandemic levels. Gelb said the goal should actually be the recent lows in 2014, before the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri further ruptured public trust in police....

Gelb also says that even though this wave of tough-on-crime laws may seem like that pendulum is headed back to that era, he doesn't think it will be that extreme. "It is a ratchet. It's not a pendulum," Gelb said. "They're not going back to the way it was before. They're shaving off the most aggressive edges and dialing things back rather than completely rejecting a balanced approach."

I largely agree with the notion that recent reforms represent more of a racheting back rather than a major pendulum swing.  In the 1980s and 1990s, it was quite common to see significant "tough on crime" legislation pass every two years in the run-up to major elections, but that trend abated in recent decades and seems unlikely to return in full form.  Notably, in this new Hill commentary, Austin Sarat predicts that "Crime and the fear of crime will play a prominent role in the 2024 presidential campaign."  But I sense that Donald Trump is going to talk far more about what he calls "migrant crime" than about reversing reforms like the First Step Act that he signed and helped to get passed through Congress. 

Notably, after what appears to have been a historic decline in homicides nationwide in 2023, the homicide data over the first few months of 2024 have been even more enouraging in cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and even Washington DC (which had an awful 2023).  If homicides and other crimes keep trending down, it seems likely that other issues will be at the center or more political talk and action. 

March 11, 2024 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Could we really see Trump "run to Biden’s left on criminal justice reform"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Hill commentary authored by Max Burns and headlined "What happened to Biden’s promises on criminal justice reform?". The whole piece is interesting, and here are some excerpts:

Back in his 2020 run for the White House, Joe Biden won over the skittish left in part because of his willingness to take big, bold stances on hot-button issues like criminal justice reform.  From interrupting the so-called “school to prison pipeline” through boosts to mental health funding to ending all incarceration for simple possession of drugs, the former vice president imagined a ground-up reworking of the carceral state....

A lot has changed in four years.  Biden’s old criminal justice pitch has since been scrubbed from his website.  He now faces regular criticism not only from the progressive left but also from experts within the criminal justice system for his often contradictory approach to the issue.  Biden isn’t alone: across the party, one of Democrats’ biggest issues in 2020 is all but invisible this year. What happened?

In researching this column I reached out to two dozen House Democrats, including multiple progressive lawmakers who staked prominent criminal justice reform positions in 2020.  Not a single office responded.  The situation wasn’t much better among the criminal justice reform nonprofits that vaulted to national prominence during 2020’s heated national debate on race, policing and prison reform.  Of the 10 organizations I reached out to, I received responses from only two.

From those willing to speak, the message was clear.  “The only hesitancy we’re seeing is from inside-the-beltway politicians who aren’t in touch with what their voters want,”  Justice Action Network Executive Director Jenna Bottler told me. “If the president wants to rejoin the criminal justice conversation, it’s simple: listen to the voters who are smarter than election-year soundbites.”...

That creates the bizarre circumstances for 2024, where Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump can run to Biden’s left on criminal justice reform.  The former president’s First Step Act marked its fifth anniversary last month, with the Bureau of Prisons reporting that more than 26,000 incarcerated Americans have been released under First Step provisions.  The First Step Act is even held in high regard by criminal justice leaders who share no other common ground with Trumpism.

“Trump has a strong and overwhelmingly popular track record on these issues. The first candidate that rejects the dated political rhetoric of the 70s and 80s …will be rewarded by voters,” Bottler said....

Critically, Trump’s First Step Act also proved that federal criminal justice reform does work. Republicans who supported the bill now proudly share news stories about how incarcerated people released under the FSA are 37 percent less likely than their peers to reoffend. The success and broad national popularity of the First Step Act should open the door for even bolder action by Biden, including a follow-up bill that expands on what FSA began. Instead, Democrats have ceded that ground to Trump, who will certainly make political hay of Biden’s limited action during the exhausting campaign ahead.

It may seem crazy that Trump could score political points with voters by scolding Biden for failing to release enough incarcerated people. But polls have remained consistent since 2018, even if Democrats haven’t. Supermajorities of Americans still support a host of commonsense prison and criminal justice reforms.

January 17, 2024 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (44)

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Prison Policy Initiative sets out long list of "Winnable criminal justice reforms" for state systems

Prison Policy Initiative has produced this new 16-page document titled "Winnable criminal justice reforms: A Prison Policy Initiative briefing on promising state reform issues for 2024."  I believe this kind of publication is now an annual production by PPI, and this year's version lists 32 suggested reforms.  Here is how the report describes its mission, followed by links to the main reform areas identified:

In this year’s guide to winnable criminal justice reforms, we’ve added information on how Medicaid and Medicare laws can be changed to better serve people in reentry, and we’ve added a section on efforts around the country to legalize marijuana and decriminalize other drugs.  As always, we’ve also updated our list of Winnable criminal justice reforms and added new example bills and resources where you can learn more.

While this briefing is not intended to be a comprehensive platform, we’ve curated this list to offer policymakers and advocates straightforward solutions that would have the greatest impacts on reducing incarceration and ameliorating harms experienced by those with a conviction history, without further investments in the carceral system.  We have also included some talking points and resources that can be used to push back when carve-outs to criminal justice reforms (that is, categorical exclusions of people who would benefit from reforms) are being discussed.

Because each state’s criminal legal system varies so much — from law and procedures, the data collected, and even how the same words are defined — it can be difficult to apply lessons from other states to the same problem in one’s own.  This guide is designed to facilitate the sharing of ideas and information across states.  That said, while we point to multiple bills, model legislation, and regulations in this document, we also recognize that many of these examples reflect compromise and could be strengthened or made more comprehensive.  This information is intended to serve as a resource as you determine which problems are a priority in your state and which lessons from elsewhere are most useful.

The reforms focus on nine areas:

November 29, 2023 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (27)

Sunday, 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 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Former Prez Trump again talking up the death penalty as a way to address drug problems

Back in March 2018, as noted in this post, then Prez Donald Trump started talking up the idea of the death penalty for drug dealers as part of his stump speeches.  Way back then, I noted that constitutional questions about any such law would be sure to reach the Supreme Court and also that, at that time, there had not been any federal execution for well over a decade.  I also noted that the then-GOP-controlled Congress was working on a sentencing reform bill that could have been a vehicle for adding his Trump's capital sentencing idea.  

Fast forward five+ years, and now Prez-candidate Donald Trump is again talking up the idea of the death penalty for drug dealers as part of his stump speeches.   This Hill article, headlined "Trump doubles down on death penalty for drug dealers," explains:

Former President Trump doubled down on calling for the death penalty for drug dealers Saturday. “President Xi in China controls 1.4 billion people, with an iron hand, no drug problems, you know why they have no drug problems?” Trump said at a campaign event in New Hampshire Saturday. “Death penalty for the drug dealers.”

“You want to solve your drug problem, you have to institute a meaningful death penalty for… a drug dealer,” the former president continued.

This isn’t the first time the former president has called for the death penalty for drug dealers.  Back in June, Trump notably advocated for drug dealers getting the death penalty in a Fox News interview, despite the fact it would have applied to Alice Johnson, a woman whose sentence Trump commuted in 2018.

Though I consider Trump's comments to be more political posturing than policy proposal, I am struck by how the legal landscape has changed since I was commenting about these ideas back in March 2018.  With Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg replaced by (Trump-appointees) Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett, the current Supreme Court seems much more likely to uphold broader applications of the federal death penalty.  I make that statement in part because these Justices expressed no concerns about the 13 federal executions that were carried out in the final six months of Trump's presidency.  And, of course, the sentencing reform bill I was talking about in March 2018 became the FIRST STEP Act that was signed into law by Trump toward the very end of that year.  (Might Trump sometime start describing his "Death penalty for the drug dealers" proposal as a second step in sentencing reform?)     

Prior related posts from 2018:

November 12, 2023 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Rounding up some recent reads on the politics of crime and punishment before second GOP debate

Tonight brings the second official GOP Prez candidate debate for the 2024 election, and perhaps because this debate is in California we might hear a little more discussion of crime and punishment issues.   Former Prez Trump has again deciding not to show up for this debate, but I continue to hope we might get a question focused on his signature criminal justice reform achievement, the First Step Act (such as the one I set forth in this prior post).  Though I doubt any crime and punishment issues will get all that much attention tonight (save perhaps immigration), I noticed a number of notable recent press pieces and commentaries about various aspects of the politics of crime and punishment these days:

From The Hill, "Progressive purity on crime is coming at the expense of public safety"

From the New York Times, "The Libertarian vs. Conservative Impulses in G.O.P. Policy on Crime"

From the Sacramento Bee, "Why do Democrats in blue California struggle to reform prisons, sentencing and police?"

From USA Today, "On criminal justice, don't just focus on bad news. We ignore progress at our peril."

From the Vera Institute of Justice, "Polling Shows Voters Prefer Crime Prevention Over Punishment"

From the Wall Street Journal, "Mayor Eric Johnson: America’s Cities Need Republicans, and I’m Becoming One"

I sincerely believe that there are lots of serious criminal justice issues that would merit lots of serious discussion and debate through the 2024 campaign.  I am not expecting elevated discussion on these topics during a candidate debate anytime soon, but I will keep rooting for it.

Some prior related posts:

September 27, 2023 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 18, 2023

Wouldn't a GOP Prez candidate debate focused just on crime and criminal justice issues be worthwhile?

Though we are still more than a week away from the next scheduled Republican primary debate, this new DC Journal piece by Jason Pye got me thinking about the question in the title of this post.  Pye's commentary piece is headlined "GOP Candidates Mum on Criminal Justice Reform," and here are some excerpts:

Americans deserve a presidential race based on substantive ideas.  The United States faces real challenges, and they’re often not the ones on which the conservative base of the Republican Party is focused.  Unfortunately, most Republican presidential candidates are resorting to reactionary rhetoric rather than offering viable solutions to complex policy issues.  One of those issues is criminal justice reform.

Only Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina has emphasized his bipartisan work on criminal justice reform and defended the First Step Act on the campaign trail.  Chris Christie also has an excellent record on the issue, going back to his time as New Jersey governor.

Other Republicans in the field, though, leave a lot to be desired.  Some are entirely missing in action on the subject. Others are employing “tough on crime” rhetoric that comes with a hefty price tag and does little to reduce recidivism.  Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida voted for the FSA when it came through the House in May 2018 and signed the Florida First Step Act into state law, but he’s now in a race to the bottom on criminal justice.  Taxpayers deserve better, especially when large budget deficits are a concern in Congress....

The early results of the FSA show the law is accomplishing its goal of lower recidivism rates....  Communities and taxpayers benefit when lawmakers adopt laws that reduce recidivism but demand accountability.  Presidential hopefuls must expand the FSA and move it into new policy areas.  Some bills have already been introduced that each presidential candidate could say they would support.

The EQUAL Act would eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine.  It’s supported by the National District Attorneys Association and the Major Cities Chiefs Association.  The Kenneth P. Thompson Begin Again Act would allow for the expungement of simple drug possession offenses.  That’s supported by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the National District Attorneys Association, and the Fraternal Order of Police.  These are only a couple of examples.  Other bills, like the Clean Slate Act and the Fresh Start Act, are worthy of support.

Notably, the next GOP debate is scheduled to take place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute.  Prez Reagan was the responsible for signing the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 into law, though in 2005 the mandatory sentencing guideline system of the SRA became advisory via the SCOTUS ruling in Booker.  Coincidentally, The next presidential inauguration will take place just days after the advisory-guidelines Booker ruling marks a full 20 years in operation! If we had a GOP Prez candidate debate focused just on crime and criminal justice, perhaps we could probe if any of the candidates would favor statutory reforms that would make the federal sentencing guidelines mandatory again (which would, along the way, eliminate any acquitted conduct guideline enhancement).

Sadly, I do not expect to see a GOP Prez candidate debate focused just on crime and criminal justice issues anytime soon.  But I still can hope and dream for at least one pointed question on this topic, such as this one I set out before the last debate:

President Donald Trump helped push the sweeping federal criminal justice reform, the First Step Act, through a GOP-controlled Congress in 2018.  In part because of that legislation (as well as pandemic developments that led to Trump's Justice Department placing thousand more defendants on home confinement), the federal prison population decreased almost 20%, dropping from about 190,000 total federal inmates in January 2017 to just over 150,000 in January 2021.  With the benefit of hindsight, do you view these laws and related developments to be a part of President Trump's record that he should be especially proud of, or do you view this part of his record as one you would be eager to reverse?

Some prior related posts:

September 18, 2023 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Will there be any interesting or surprising crime and punishment discussion at tonight's first GOP debate?

Issues of crime and punishment (and drug policies) have gotten a little play in the early days of the 2024 campaign, but tonight's scheduled GOP debate would be a high-profile opportunity for a candidate to say something notable about crime and punishment issues.  In this vein, I have seen one press piece and one lengthy substack entry flagging criminal justice issues in the run-up to the debate:

From the Washington Examiner, "Up for Debate: Trump, DeSantis, and 2024 GOP hopefuls' stance on crime"

From The Watch (by Radley Balko), "My questions for the GOP candidates: Here's what I'd ask the also-rans at Wednesday's Trumpless debate"

I like a number of Radley Balko's questions, but he fails to suggest asking the GOP candidates about former Prez Trump's signature criminal justice reform achievement, the First Step Act.  Here is one version of a question I would love to see asked on that front:

President Donald Trump helped push the sweeping federal criminal justice reform, the First Step Act, through a GOP-controlled Congress in 2018.  In part because of that legislation (as well as pandemic developments that led to Trump's Justice Department placing thousand more defendants on home confinement), the federal prison population decreased almost 20%, dropping from about 190,000 total federal inmates in January 2017 to just over 150,000 in January 2021.  With the benefit of hindsight, do you view these laws and related developments to be a part of President Trump's record that he should be especially proud of, or do you think this is a part of his record that you would be eager to reverse?

I am fairly certain this question will not be asked, but the efforts by some of the candidates to throw shade on Prez Trump's work on the First Step Act would make for an interesting discussion.  Here is hoping that at least something interesting will happen during the GOP debate, though I am not holding my breath.

Some prior related posts:

August 23, 2023 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, July 10, 2023

Canvassing GOP discussion and perspectives on criminal justice reform in run up to 2024

This new Time piece, headlined "DeSantis Moves to Trump's Right on Criminal Justice," provides an interesting overview of how GOP candidates and GOP voters are looking at criminal justice issues.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

DeSantis’ move to the right on criminal justice reform in part reveals that violent crime can be a fruitful focus for Republican primary candidates, and allows him to draw a contrast with Trump, the current frontrunner in the race. Amid DeSantis’ pressureTrump has begun backing away from what he used to tout as a major legislative victory. When Fox News asked Trump in June about sentencing reform, he spoke of a new proposal to punish drug dealers with the death penalty.

Yet DeSantis’ position is more extreme than the views of most Republican primary voters, experts say.  “Right now, the political rhetoric may be tough, but that doesn’t change where the base is,” says Micah Derry, CEO of the Adams Project, which is focused on conservative criminal justice reform.  ”That’s important for people to understand — that the base hasn’t moved.  They want a safe community, to support law enforcement, want people held accountable, and they want to know that there is a pathway for rehabilitation.”

The Adams Project published a poll on July 6 examining conservative views on safety and crime.  More than 80% of focus group participants supported the idea that a criminal justice system must allow incarcerated people to “have the chance to get the skills and training necessary to pursue a better path after prison.”  It also found that GOP voters responded negatively to messages that attack the First Step Act, noting that the provisions “almost perfectly matched” or were “pretty close” to views of 86% of Republicans.  Focus group members referred to them as “attacks on Trump” and “political posturing.”  Many focus group members viewed the traditional “tough-on-crime” approach as dated and out of touch and emphasized the importance of second chances....

Not all criminal justice reform has been popular with Republicans, especially measures tied to defunding the police, bail reform, or shortening long sentences even for violent offenders.  But proposals tied to the idea of second chances and helping people who have been incarcerated transition back into society have gotten more support.

July 10, 2023 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 03, 2023

"The First Step Act is a conservative, constructive approach to strengthening public safety"

The title of this post is a line from this new Hill commentary authored by Timothy Head and David Safavian. The piece is a response, of sorts, to the various attacks on the FIRST STEP Act by some GOP Prez candidates (discussed here and here), and here are excerpts:

[O]n occasion, Congress comes to its senses to pass impactful legislation.  And those moments of sensibility are often rooted in conservative principles.  Take the First Step Act, for example — a criminal justice bill supported by large majorities in the House and Senate and signed into law by then-President Trump in 2018.  The bill helped nonviolent prisoners earn shorter sentences through education and work, and it lowered certain mandatory minimum sentences that lacked any public safety benefit.  Data shows that the bill is reducing recidivism, which makes our communities safer.

But as the political season swings into full gear, the law has become the target of criticism from those who believe that a harsh criminal justice system is more effective in reducing crime.  Indeed, some have called for repeal of the legislation.  This is not only ill-informed, but it is also a short-sighted mistake.  Now is not the time to shy away from improving the criminal justice system; instead, we should build upon the First Step Act’s success....

The First Step Act is a conservative, constructive approach to strengthening public safety while giving those in prison a pathway to earning back the public’s trust.  Indeed, we helped craft the legislation in collaboration with public safety leaders and agencies, victims’ rights organizations, stakeholders in state legislatures, and everyday Americans impacted by our criminal justice system.

And the legislation has delivered positive results — not the least of which is a far lower recidivism rate for those who benefitted from the bill.  Because every instance of re-offending means another criminal case with another victim, recidivism is a key indicator of the performance of our criminal justice system.  When measured by recidivism, the benefits of the First Step Act are undeniable....

The First Step Act isn’t the only reform of the justice system that has been successful.  Conservatives also delivered smart but tough policies in the passage of the CARES Act in March 2020, near the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The CARES Act was known primarily for its economic relief designed for individuals and small businesses affected by the shutting down of the economy.  But the media has virtually ignored another aspect of the CARES Act, which helped almost 12,000 minimum security federal inmates finish their sentences in home confinement instead of in taxpayer-funded prison cells.  Since its implementation, there has been an astonishingly low recidivism rate of only 0.15 percent — just 17 prisoners committed new crimes.

As conservatives, we want the best for our communities, and part of that includes helping prisoners return home as good spouses, parents, and neighbors while reducing taxpayer costs.  For years, Congress has talked about reducing recidivism and restoring lives. But the successes of the First Step Act and the CARES Act underscore the importance of conservative values in shaping effective legislation that can be enacted.

Instead of trying to score cheap political points, politicians should continue working towards a more effective justice system that cuts crime, makes neighborhoods safer, and offers pathways to rehabilitation.  In doing so, conservatives can continue to earn the American people’s trust for years to come.

I find efforts to brand the FIRST STEP Act as "conservative" to be quite interesting, and I am thinking the line serving as the title of this post could provide the foundation for an interesting question in coming GOP candidate debates (the first of which is slated for next month).  Especially given that Prez Biden has, so far, achieved very little in the criminal justice reform space, I really would find interesting whether and how various GOP candidates (including former Prez Trump) might embrace or assail the FIRST STEP Act as a "conservative" legislative development.

Somewhat relatedly, here are a few other recent commentaries discussing federal justice reform issues and broader political dynamics:

From Forbes, "The Unnecessary Risk Of Incarcerating Minimum Security Inmates"

From The Marshall Project, "Why DeSantis Wants to Kill Trump’s Prison Reform Law"

From the Tampa Bay Times, "Here’s how Gov. DeSantis is trashing criminal justice reform"

Prior related posts:

July 3, 2023 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (13)

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Can and will GOP leaders persistently attack both federal criminal justice and federal criminal justice reform?

Two new headlines this morning focused on two different aspects of federal criminal justice and the activities of former Prez Donald Trump prompt the question in the title of this post.  These two pieces are worth reading in full, but here are the complete headlines, links and key paragraphs:

From The Spectator, "The GOP is sprinting away from criminal justice reform: The nation’s violent crime wave has changed the conversation":

In the five years since it hit the president’s desk, ... the First Step Act has become a source of controversy within the Republican Party. Members of the GOP are reticent to appear soft on crime as America’s major cities undergo a post-pandemic crime wave and progressive members of the Democratic Party advocate for defunding the police and installing left-wing prosecutors who are keen on giving second — or third, or fourth — chances to criminals.  Trump has hardly talked about the landmark legislation on the 2024 campaign trail, and his primary opponents have started to use it as an attack line, as proof that they are the true law-and-order candidates....

The GOP’s abandonment of criminal justice reform is likely a welcome change for tough-on-crime mainstays like Senators Tom Cotton and John Kennedy, who voted against the First Step Act, while the libertarian wing of the party will be vexed.  The real story will be in how these internal fights are received by primary voters, as 80 percent of Republicans said crime is a real threat in communities in a March NPR poll.  Which primary candidates can run the fastest from the perception that they might be gracious to criminals?

From the Washington Post, "Republicans slam law enforcement over Trump indictment, showing shift in GOP: Many in the party have sought to discredit the integrity of federal agencies that have investigated and charged the former president, marking another step away from the GOP’s longtime positioning": 

Polling from Pew Research Center suggests that the GOP attacks on the FBI and the Justice Department have had an effect.  Only 38 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning adults said they viewed the FBI favorably in a survey released in March; and about 40 percent of those respondents viewed the Justice Department favorably.  Although Pew’s older data is not comparable to the 2023 survey because of changes in survey mode and the wording of questions, one earlier survey showed that before Trump took office, most Republicans had a positive view of the FBI.

Trump has set the tone for the invective against federal law enforcement agencies.  Shortly after the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago last year, he called the FBI and Justice Department “vicious monsters” and scoundrels.

In political speeches over the weekend, he said the FBI and the Justice Department were “corrupt” and alleged that Biden “is trying to jail his leading political opponent”....  In April, Trump called on the Republican-led Congress to defund the FBI and the Justice Department — a day after he was arraigned in Manhattan on separate charges.

For a variety of reasons, I suspect we will continue to see at least some GOP leaders continuing to attack both federal criminal justice (going after Trump's federal prosecution) and federal criminal justice reform (going after Trump's FIRST STEP support). But I am quite unsure how all these attacks might echo through and impact the politics and policies of federal criminal justice reform debates in the coming months and years as we approach another big federal election. 

Ultimately, I find it fascinating that Trump is now the nation's highest profile criminal defendant, in both state and federal courts (and also has already been found liable for a tortious sex offense), and yet he is still the most popular figure in the supposed "law and order" party.  Go figure.

June 13, 2023 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, Celebrity sentencings, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (42)

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Florida Gov DeSantis reportedly gearing up to attack former Prez Trump for his support of FIRST STEP Act

This notable and lengthy new New York Times article, headlined "DeSantis Burnishes Tough-on-Crime Image to Run in ’24 and Take On Trump," reports that Florida's Governor plans to assail former Prez Trump for his record on crimnal justice reform. Here are excerpts:

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has spent months shoring up a tough-on-crime image as he weighs a run for the White House, calling for stronger penalties against drug traffickers and using $5,000 bonuses to bolster law-enforcement recruitment to his state.  Now, Mr. DeSantis and his allies plan to use that image to draw a contrast with the Republican front-runner in the 2024 race, former President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. DeSantis and his backers see the signature criminal-justice law enacted by Mr. Trump in 2018 as an area of weakness with his base, and Mr. DeSantis has indicated that he would highlight it when the two men tussle for the Republican nomination, according to three people with knowledge of Mr. DeSantis’s thinking.  That law, known as the First Step Act, reduced the sentences for thousands of prisoners....

One potentially complicating factor for Mr. DeSantis: He voted for the initial House version of the First Step Act in May 2018, while still a congressman.  He resigned his seat in September 2018 after winning the Republican primary for governor, and was not in the House to vote for the more expansive version of the sentencing reform bill that ultimately passed into law in December 2018....

In January, Mr. DeSantis announced a series of legislative measures for the coming session in Florida, which, among other actions, would toughen penalties against drug traffickers. “Other states endanger their citizens by making it easier to put criminals back on the street. Here, in Florida, we will continue to support and enact policies to protect our communities and keep Floridians safe,” Mr. DeSantis said in a statement at the time. “Florida will remain the law-and-order state.”...

Mr. Trump is aware of his vulnerability on the crime issue because of his record as president, according to people close to him.  Shortly after leaving office he began trying to inoculate himself against attacks by promising an uncompromising law-and-order agenda, with especially harsh treatment of drug dealers.

In a speech last year at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who was a staunch supporter of most of Mr. Trump’s agenda but a critic of the First Step Act, called Mr. Trump’s moves on criminal justice reform the “worst mistake” of his term.

Since becoming a candidate for the third time in November, Mr. Trump has released a handful of direct-to-camera videos discussing policy.  In one, he proposed strengthening police departments with additional hiring and criticized what he called “radical Marxist prosecutors who are abolishing cash bail, refusing to charge crimes and surrendering our cities to violent criminals.”  He also called for deploying the National Guard into areas with high crime rates.  But he did not address sentencing, the core of his surprisingly lenient approach in office — and one that was at odds with his law-and-order campaign talk.

Asked to comment, Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s campaign, described Mr. Trump as “the law-and-order president that cracked down on crime and put away violent offenders, resulting in the lowest crime rate in decades.” Mr. Cheung accused Mr. DeSantis of giving “a safe haven for violent felons” that has resulted “in rampant crime in Florida” and said that Mr. Trump had received support from law enforcement officials around the country. And Mr. Cheung pointed to an array of crime statistics in Florida that the Trump campaign planned to highlight as unfavorable for Mr. DeSantis.

As president, following the advice of his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, in December 2018, Mr. Trump signed the First Step Act, which resulted in more than 3,000 inmates being released early from federal prison.  A Republican official who is not affiliated with Mr. DeSantis and who has closely tracked criminal recidivism among people released from prison because of the First Step Act, said that the volume of those releases would provide fodder for attack ads against Mr. Trump.

On Wednesday, Pedro L. Gonzalez, a conservative with a large online following who often attacks Mr. Trump from the right and defends Mr. DeSantis, tweeted that the man charged with assaulting a U.S. Senate staff member over the weekend was “released from prison thanks to Trump’s First Step Act” and linked to a Fox News story about the case. Many of those released under the First Step Act had been imprisoned for selling drugs — a crime that Mr. Trump now says publicly that he wants to punish with the death penalty because of the destruction wrought by illegal drugs....

“Did it for African Americans. Nobody else could have gotten it done,” Mr. Trump wrote in response to a reporter’s question in 2022, adding, “Got zero credit.” The word “zero” was underlined for emphasis. But in June 2020, as Americans massed on the streets to protest the police killing of George Floyd, Mr. Trump told his aides privately, according to Axios, that it was a mistake to have listened to Mr. Kushner....

In his final six months in office, Mr. Trump was erratic in his criminal justice policies. He went on a historic federal execution spree. But he also went on a pardon spree — handing out many dubious pardons, including one to a drug smuggler with a history of violence, through a process heavily influenced by Mr. Kushner. And by the time Mr. Trump was plainly looking for a future in politics again in 2021, he began talking publicly about executing drug dealers.

March 30, 2023 in Campaign 2024 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)