After Donald Trump’s election, “the opportunity for very large progressive criminal-justice reform in Washington is not going to happen,” Inimai Chettiar of the Brennan Center for Justice tells the Wall Street Journal. With Trump set to take office in January, justice-reform groups across the political spectrum are scrambling to find a path forward. Advocates of changes like shorter prison sentences see the selection of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for attorney general as a bad sign. Sessions has been one of Congress’s staunchest opponents of a criminal-justice overhaul, arguing it would put people in danger. This year, he said a proposed sentencing bill “would release thousands of violent felons and endanger millions of Americans whose safety is increasingly threatened by rising crime rates,” which reform proponents dispute.
Some activists also cite the president-elect’s tough-on-crime rhetoric and praise of New York’s stop-and-frisk police tactics as signs he won’t support change. Had Democrat Hillary Clinton been elected president, a criminal-justice overhaul would have been “a top three issue,” said Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Under Trump, “We’ll be fighting for scraps,” he said. Some groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, are responding by refocusing on the states. The group’s Udi Ofer said he was encouraged by state ballot results, citing Oklahoma’s decision to approve criminal-justice-overhaul measures. Others aren’t giving up on a federal push. “People say a President Trump would be disastrous for criminal justice reform, but I think that’s completely ridiculous,” said Holly Harris of the U.S. Justice Action Network. She said that others close to Trump, such as Vice President-elect Mike Pence and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, support changes to criminal-justice laws.