Concern about how the next administration will deal with criminal justice reform is well-justified. But possibly the most troubling clue to the policies of a Trump Administration is contained in the attitudes of the President-elect to science.
Donald Trump does not appear to have much regard for scientific evidence. He believes, for example, that climate change is a hoax.
If he applies that know-nothing mindset to the evidence-based practices that have begun to inform new thinking about incarceration and sentencing policies, reformers are going to be in for a bumpy ride.
So far, we have been given bits and pieces of Trump’s positions, but little in terms of explicit policy statements. And what we do know of his thinking is rife with contradictions.
Trump branded himself as the “law and order” candidate during the GOP convention last summer. Earlier, in a November 2015 interview on MSNBC, he called himself “a believer in tough on crime,” and compared urban neighborhoods afflicted with violence to “the Wild West.”
He criticized the Obama administration’s decision to approve the early release of approximately 600 low-level drug offenders from federal prison. Not letting the facts get in his way, Trump declared that “Obama is even releasing violent criminals from the jails, including drug dealers, and those with gun crimes. And they’re being let go by the thousands. By the thousands. …”
And he went further: “Obama pushed for changes to sentencing laws that released thousands of dangerous, drug-trafficking felons and gang members who prey on civilians.”
Commentators have pointed out that Trump has changed many of his beliefs over the course of the campaign. While he once appeared to defend a woman’s right to choose, he has since become a staunch pro-lifer. But his “tough on crime” beliefs have been largely unchanged.
His 2000 book The America We Deserve rejected arguments made by social scientists and criminologists that suggested strong links between criminal offending and poverty or childhood maltreatment, insisting that such explanations are “soft on crime.”
As his campaign ratcheted up this fall, he strengthened the point.
“Tough on crime policies are the most important form of national defense,” he has claimed. ”Aggressive anticrime policies are the best social program.”
Advocates of reducing America’s overcrowded prisons are, similarly, unlikely to get a warm reception in the Trump White House or Justice Department. Trump is an avid advocate of imprisonment, apparently showing no concern for current levels of incarceration and a clear disdain for the recent, ever-so-modest reform efforts made at the state level.
Moreover, legislation supported by a bipartisan coalition that proposed modest changes to federal sentencing has been languishing in Congress for over two years. One of its most vocal opponents has been Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions—a key Trump ally who has been touted as a possible cabinet member.
It’s probably safe to conclude that the prospects of such legislation being resurrected under President Trump are bleak.
Most of the criminologists and policymakers who have examined the current research in criminal justice policy are aware that the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports reducing punitive policies, and of implementing comprehensive, evidence-based clinical intervention and rehabilitation programs.
But this growing intellectual consensus is not likely to persuade a Trump administration committed to the law-and-order, tough-on-crime rhetoric that excited crowds during the recent campaign.
The early speculation is that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is Trump’s first choice for Attorney General. Giuliani remains one of the foremost defenders of the stop-and-frisk policing strategies which he instituted in New York—and which have since come under both legal and scholarly attack.
Trump, a native New Yorker who often refers to the city’s high-crime era of the 1990s, has long been a Giuliani fan. While his justice views have undoubtedly been influenced by the ex-mayor, he also appears willing to go even further in denying the validity of scientific research—or even evidence.
He argues for instance that the so-called Central Park Five—five young men imprisoned for a notorious attack on a jogger and eventually released when DNA evidence proved their innocence—are guilty. The fact that someone else actually confessed to the crime appears to have eluded him.
Evidence-based strategies are already influencing policies at the state level. There have been some state- level rollbacks of tough- on-crime policies, especially in terms of sentencing laws and prison populations. Fiscal pressures may keep some states headed in that direction; but to reiterate, this is very modest change.
The bigger challenge of criminal justice reform is much more extensive and comprehensive than what has transpired or been considered to date. For example, the recidivism rate of mentally ill prisoners is 80 percent. That screams revolving-door and should serve as a clue about diverting to clinical treatment many of the 40 percent of prison inmates with mental health issues.
So, too, for the vast majority who have a substance-use disorder, as well as those with neurocognitive and intellectual impairment and deficits.
But such evidence-based strategies may come to a dead stop in a Trump administration.
While much of criminal justice policymaking is local, the federal government has a huge impact on setting priorities through its funding power.
I fear a federal tough-on-crime agenda will increase the political risk associated with current reform efforts, in turn keeping any surviving reform efforts piecemeal and modest. And when it comes to extensive, comprehensive criminal justice reform, the prospects are even bleaker.
Reform requires effective leadership. From the evidence available to us so far, that’s not likely to come from a science-hostile Trump White House.
William R. Kelly is a professor of sociology at the University of Teas at Austin. He is the author of three recent books on criminal justice reform, Criminal Justice at the Crossroads: Transforming Crime and Punishment, Columbia University Press, May 2015, The Future of Crime and Punishment: Smart Policies for Reducing Crime and Saving Money, Rowman and Littlefield, July 2016, and From Retribution to Public Safety: Disruptive Innovation of American Criminal Justice, Rowman and Littlefield, June 2017.