The election of Donald Trump, who ran a swaggering tough-on-crime campaign, disheartened many advocates of bipartisan criminal justice reform. The Marshall Project invited conservatives active in that cause to make a case to the president-elect — a conservative case — for ways to make the system more fair, humane and effective. This is the third of three commentaries.
The new president’s is known for his real estate acumen, but he doesn’t have a monopoly on exclusive properties. It turns out that the cheapest room at the Trump International hotel in New York City costs less than the $620 per night per youth cost for juvenile detention in the Big Apple. In addition to Donald Trump’s message of promoting efficiency in government, he also ran on expanding the workforce to reclaim America’s economic prowess. Yet, so many of those on the margins of our society cannot hold a job because they are incarcerated, have a criminal record, or are suffering from addiction. Indeed, there was a significant correlation between counties with a high numbers of opiate overdose deaths and counties voting for Trump.
While Trump and other nominees have made statements about being tough on crime, Trumpism is consistent with the “deal” that a smaller more effective criminal justice system represents for the American people: better public safety for lower costs while holding offenders accountable. There are also many hopeful signs that the new administration could be as active on the issue as it is on Twitter. Vice President-elect Mike Pence who championed rehabilitation initiatives as governor of Indiana and key figures such as Ben Carson and Reince Priebus have gone on the record in support of criminal justice reforms. Moreover, Jared Kushner, who faced the harrowing experience of seeing his father incarcerated, has supported organizations like the Aleph Institute that works to ensure Jewish prisoners can see a rabbi, and also advocates for sentencing reform.
Additionally, the Trump administration presents a major opportunity to break the criminal justice reform logjam in Congress. Perhaps the biggest reason the Sentencing and Corrections Reform Act got bottlenecked is the fight over whether a default mens rea provision should be included, which many Republicans view as essential but the Obama administration obstructed on grounds that it would make it harder to prosecute white-collar crimes. In truth, the requirement of a culpable mental state is important no matter the color of the defendant’s collar.
Race car driver Bobby Unser should not have faced federal criminal charges for unknowingly driving his snowmobile into a federally protected area during a blizzard that obscured the boundary signs. Similarly, a “mule” in the drug trade should not be subject to life in prison based on the quantities of drugs possessed by someone far up the food chain. Unfortunately, federal conspiracy laws provide that even someone who has a minor role with no supervisory authority can be held accountable for the drug quantities of the entire operation, even though they didn’t actually know the quantities of drugs those far above them in the distribution networks were dealing.
In addition to a default mens rea provision and ensuring that intent be proved for every element of sentencing enhancements, other federal criminal justice reform priorities should include civil asset forfeiture reform, reining in mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses, and earned time for most inmates who complete programs proven to reduce recidivism. Given that 90 percent of offenders are sentenced and incarcerated at the state and local level, the Department of Justice should continue providing technical assistance to states. This assistance has been instrumental in more than 30 states adopting justice reinvestment plans that lower both costs and crime through solutions such as drug and mental health treatment, problem-solving courts, and swift, certain, and commensurate sanctions to promote compliance with supervision. (Half of those admitted to prisons are there because they violated rules of probation and parole.) Indeed, from 2010 to 2015 in the 10 states with the largest imprisonment declines, the crime rate fell an average of 14.6 percent, compared with 8.4 percent in the 10 states with the biggest growth in imprisonment.
From his position in Trump Tower, the incoming president has had a birdseye view of the single most powerful urban example of simultaneously reducing crime and incarceration. New York City has cut its incarceration rate by 55 percent (combined local jail and state commitments) since 1996, while simultaneously reducing serious crime by a whopping 58 percent. New York City’s broken windows policing model combated an atmosphere of lawlessness by ensuring quality-of-life crimes like graffiti and jumping subway turnstiles were no longer ignored, but the interventions almost always involved alternatives to incarceration. Should not those who defile buildings be put to work cleaning up the mess rather than sit in jail? In the Big Apple, many neighborhoods where crime was once the most salient issue now have the rather preferable problem of increased housing costs. For a new president who has pledged to make America great again, it only makes sense to look at what has made New York City great again: the conservative principles that tell us to be smart, not just tough, on crime.
Marc Levin is policy director of Right on Crime and director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He is a member of The Marshall Project’s advisory board.