RELEASE:THE FACTS VS.PRESIDENT TRUMP’S OVERBLOWN CLAIMS ABOUT CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM AND THE FIRST STEP ACT DATE:October 26, 2020
CONTACT:Malcolm C. Young
New Report: President Trump’s claims to have accomplished unprecedented sentencing reformand increased racial justice in the federal criminal justice system are overblown or simply incorrect.There have been several prior reforms in federal sentencing, one with half again the FSA’s impact on prison use. Programming inside federal prisons and reentry for returning citizens aren’t working. Trumpcynically attacks Bidenfor his support for the 1994 crime bill 26 years ago even as he names regressive nominees to the United States Sentencing Commission who could, if confirmed, end or reverse federal sentencing reformsfor years to come.
President Trump has called the First Step Act(“FSA”) which he signed into law on December 21, 2018 “the most significant criminal justice reform of our generation,” a success his predecessors couldn’t achieve. As seen in the presidential candidate’sdebate onOctober 22, 2020, Trump usesthe FSAto burnish his claim of having “done more for the Black community than any other president… with a possible exception of Abraham Lincoln.” He also uses it as a cudgel with which to hammer Joe Biden for his support of the 1994 crime bill.
Inareportreleased today, “How Much Credit Should Trump be Given for the First Step Act?” Malcolm C. Young, an attorney and justice advocate who has worked with sentencing issues for more than four decades, shows by exactly how much Trump overstates his case.Topics covered:
Reductions in federal prison use.Contrary to Trump’s claims, measured by how much it reduced federal prison use the FSA was neither the first nor the largest federal sentencing reformin recent years:
•Changes in sentences for crack cocaine initiated in the Bush administration in 2007 reduced federal prison use by almost 3/4of the amount by which the FSA reduced prison use.
•Three sentencing reforms during Obama’s administrationand Obama’s clemency initiative reduced federal prison use by twice as muchas it was reduced by the FSA.
•A single reforming the length of sentence imposed for drug law violations,introduced by the United States Sentencing Commission(USSC)in 2014, reduced prison usehalf again as muchas was reduced by the FSA.
Benefits for Black Americans. Almost 92% of the beneficiaries of the FSA’s provisions making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive were Black, comparable to 86 –87% of the beneficiaries of previous reforms intended to offset the effects of racially biased sentencing laws. However, Black individuals comprised a smaller proportion of the beneficiaries of the FSA’s other provisions.
Reentry and recidivism. The FSA attempted to install within the Bureau of Prisons an elaborate “system” builtaround a misplaced reliance on scored risk assessments and non-existent “evidence-based programs” to improve reentry from federal prison and reduce recidivism. This report describes structural flaws in the “system” and shortfalls in its operationwhich, however, are more Congress’ than Trump’s fault. COVID-19 has rendered the “system” inoperable.
Cynicism: The President and the United States Sentencing Commission. Trump recently proposed a second round of nominees to fill five of seven seats on this critical commission. Several of Trump’s nominees builttheir careers around long, “tough” sentences in criminal cases and are thought to be unlikely to advance sentencing reform. The report calls upon Congress to guard against a Commission dominated by sentencing hardliners who could stop the USSC from introducing future sentencing reforms and even reverse the FSA’s reductions federal prison use.