Tackling ‘Very Unfair’ Drug Penalties Could Help Trump Win
Donald Trump, who ran for president in 2016 on a “law and order” platform borrowed from Richard Nixon, is running for re-election as a criminal justice reformer. That transformation would be more convincing and politically potent if it included things he plans to do as well as things he has already done.
This month the Trump campaign ran a Super Bowl ad featuring Alice Johnson, a nonviolent drug offender whose life sentence the president commuted in 2018. The ad also highlighted Trump’s support for the FIRST STEP Act, a law that is expected to free more than 3,000 federal drug offenders and shorten the sentences of another 2,000 or so each year.
Trump brought up both of those subjects in his 2019 State of the Union address, during which he introduced Johnson, who was sitting in the audience. In last week’s SOTU speech, he touted the FIRST STEP Act as a “landmark criminal justice reform” that has given people a “second chance at life.”
So far Trump has commuted just six sentences, including Johnson’s. Yet that is six times as many as Barack Obama, who eventually issued more commutations than any president in history, managed during his first term.
Trump deserves credit for signing the FIRST STEP Act despite resistance from hard-line Republicans such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.). But as the law’s name suggests, its reforms—which include several changes that will reduce future drug sentences, retroactive application of the lighter crack cocaine penalties that Congress approved in 2010, and expanded time credits for good behavior and participation in job training and rehabilitation programs—are modest in the context of 175,000 federal inmates and a total prison and jail population of more than 2 million.
Trump’s concern about “very unfair” drug senten
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