Two of the nation’s most powerful civil rights organizations signaled Thursday that they hoped to persuade the incoming Administration to support existing bipartisan efforts for justice reform.
But they also warned they would mount challenges—including legal challenges—if President-elect Donald Trump tried to implement the some of the more controversial “law and order” policy pledges he made during the campaign or otherwise turn back the clock on civil rights achievements to date. (On Friday, Trump was reported to have selected U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and opponent of both immigration and mass incarceration reforms, as his nominee to lead the U.S. Justice Department as attorney general.)
Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF); and Thomas Saenz, President of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), singled out deportation of undocumented immigrants with criminal records, threats to sanctuary cities and the revival of private prisons as special concerns.
Both were invited to speak at a special session of the American Society of Criminology’s annual conference in New Orleans.
Nelson noted there was already broad agreement from Democrats and Republicans on the need for reducing prison populations, and a growing acknowledgement that the justice system was riddled with racial inequities and needed fundamental reform.
“Let’s not go back on progress,” she said.
Saenz called Trump’s recent lowering of the estimated number of undocumented immigrants who would be forced back to their homelands from 11 million to two million or three million “bad” people convicted of crimes “progress of a kind”—but he added it was still “dramatically far off” the real number of those who had serious criminal records.
Nevertheless, he held out the hope that the next president could be persuaded that his campaign pledges were counterproductive .
In the 1990s, for example, hundreds of young gang members who were children of undocumented immigrants from El Salvador and Honduras were sent back to those countries, where they soon recreated their criminal activities. That triggered a rise in violence which sent more people fleeing to the U.S.
“Our decision created a humanitarian crisis in Central America” —and more undocumented immigrants, said Saenz.
Saenz said it was conceivable that Trump could be persuaded that “ we have to do better” at distinguishing those immigrants who have served time for minor offenses and posed no further security threat from the relatively smaller number of those whose serious crimes might justify their removal from the country as a safety measure.
But he also said that MALDEF intended to continue to bring its weight to bear on efforts to protect “sanctuary cities” (which Trump has threatened to punish by withdrawing some federal funding), as well as defending the civil rights of Latinos.
Nelson, similarly, said the NAACP’s legal efforts to battle racial inequity across the criminal justice system would continue, despite the prospect of a rightward shift in the Supreme Court.
“A (Supreme) Court composed of nominees by a president who did not win a majority of the popular vote doesn’t have the authority to overturn (earlier) precedents,” she said, promising that the NAACP would make common cause with MALDEF and other organizations in defending civil rights.
(Asked later to elaborate, Nelson said many of the legal battles over the next four years would likely focus on state and local courts.)
Nelson said she worried that the recent Department of Justice order to phase out the use of private prisons for federal inmates —followed soon after by a decision to re-evaluate the use of privately run detention facilities to house undocumented immigrants—could be overturned by a new administration.
“We can’t ignore the signals,” she said. “Private prison stocks shot up (after the election)…markets are effectively predicting that more people would be incarcerated, just based on who occupies the White House.”
Despite their cautious language, the two speakers set the stage for what is likely to be a sustained battle to protect the civil rights achievements of past decades, which they fear could be endangered by a Trump Administration.
That fear—and the possible impact on ongoing justice reform efforts—was echoed in an earlier panel by Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black.”
“We’re at a moment of risk—where things could get worse instead of better,” said Kerman, whose book about her experience in the prison system (and the subsequent Netflix serial based on the book) has made her a prominent spokesperson for reform of what she terms the “carceral state.”
She called on criminologists and activists to counter the “tough on crime“ rhetoric by helping those who have been most victimized by the justice system tell their stories.
“The voices of incarcerated people have to (be heard),” said Kerman, who now facilitates writing workshops for inmates in Ohio. “That’s how we get to a better place.”
Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments by readers.