Trump’s Vague Commitment to Criminal Justice Reform
Alice Johnson’s appearance at the Republican National Convention last week was a rebuke to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who for decades promoted the draconian policies that sent her to prison for life as a first-time, nonviolent drug offender. Johnson’s case was also meant to show that President Donald Trump, who commuted her sentence in 2018 and pardoned her the day after her speech, offers a more enlightened alternative.
The truth is a little more complicated. While Biden’s record in office on criminal justice issues is long and awful, Trump’s is short and pretty good. But when it comes to promises for the future, a repentant Biden supports several ambitious reforms, while Trump sounds like the Biden of the 1980s and ’90s.
Johnson, who received a life sentence in 1997 for participating in a Memphis-based cocaine trafficking operation, was introduced during the president’s State of the Union address last year, and she was featured in a Trump campaign Super Bowl ad last February. Her case exemplifies the unjust penalties that Biden—whom the Trump campaign describes, with only a little hyperbole, as “the chief architect of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs”—supported as a senator.
Trump seems to have been genuinely moved by Johnson’s story, and so far he has commuted 10 sentences in addition to hers. By comparison, Barack Obama, who eventually commuted a record 1,715 sentences, approved just one petition during his first term.
The convention also highlighted Trump’s support for the FIRST STEP Act, a 2018 law that included some modest but significant sentencing reforms. One of those provisions dealt with the irrational disparity between the smoked and snorted forms of cocaine, which was created by a 1986 law that Biden wrote.
More than two decades later, in the midst of his unsuccessful bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Biden introduced a bill aimed at eliminating
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