President Trump has taken steps on criminal justice issues that make American communities less safe.
—Trump made it harder to earn a GED while in federal prison.
Under federal law, those in federal prison can earn credit for good conduct if they make progress on a General Education Development (GED) degree. Promoting education in prison not only encourages good behavior during confinement, it also helps reduce recidivism and keep communities safe. But as of 2010, 17,609 individuals, or approximately 11 percent of the entire federal prison population, were on a GED enrollment waitlist. Those with cognitive disabilities faced an even greater hurdle: even if they gained a spot, GED programs would fail to address their needs. In 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) proposed a rule that would tackle both issues by allowing alternative education programs to count towards good conduct credit. The change would have shrunk the GED waitlist and helped ensure inmates with disabilities receive the support that would best prepare them for reentry. The proposal was heading for final action until Trump hit the brakes.
SIDEBAR: It’s not the only way Trump has created barriers to successful reentry. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos refused to commit to re-authorizing Second Chance Pell, a pilot program that allows individuals to access Pell Grants while in prison. A RAND Corporation study found that providing prisoners access to education decreased recidivism by 43 percent. So why the waffling? According to DeVos, “obviously the department is not real involved with criminal justice reform issues.”
—He has yet to announce a federal investigation into a police-involved shooting death.Since Trump took office, there have been nearly 1,200 police-involved shooting deaths in America. Despite the devastating toll of these shootings, DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has not publicly announced an investigation into an officer’s conduct in any of the incidents. The difficulties in actually charging and convicting police officers are well documented, particularly for federal civil rights violations. However, in recent years, DOJ had increasingly made it a practice to at least investigate these incidents, bringing federal attention to the issue of police misconduct and often sparking broader DOJ investigations of systemic abuses. But the Trump Administration views police-involved shootings as purely “local matter[s],” and so the practice of DOJ examining potential civil rights violations seems to have completely stalled.
SIDEBAR: Not only has Trump’s Civil Rights Division not announced a single investigation into an officer-involved deadly shooting incident, his administration has announced zero investigations into any local police department. Between 2009 and 2017, DOJ launched 25 civil rights investigations in cities like Ferguson, Chicago, and Baltimore. These inquiries often followed a police-involved shooting and prompted important reforms. One way DOJ enforced reform? With the use of consent decrees. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions has essentially barred the tool, claiming “[i]t is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” That’s not the point. The Attorney General should read DOJ’s website, because enforcing federal laws that protect individuals from law enforcement misconduct is a core mission of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.
—He unlawfully rolled back protections against the levying of discriminatory fines and court fees on young people. In early January 2017, DOJ issued an advisory to ensure courts and probation departments refrain from levying discriminatory or unconstitutional fines and fees against juveniles. There was good reason for this restriction: Such fines and fees increase recidivism, exacerbate existing racial inequities, and can increase distrust of police officers. The advisory, and its companion advisory related to adults, prompted action. Localities like Sacramento County and Philadelphia, and states likes Arkansas and Texas, all reviewed or reconsidered their policies on fines and fees. But in December 2017, Trump withdrew the advisory without offering any meaningful justification. Now he’s being sued.
SIDEBAR: Incredibly, the Trump Administration noted the importance of the protections before eviscerating them. In May 2017, DOJ cited steps taken in response to the advisory to close an investigation into Sacramento Superior Court’s use of fines and fees. Sacramento had instituted sweeping reforms after the advisory was issued, and the Trump Administration closed DOJ’s review of the county, in part, because Sacramento “conform[ed] with the obligations and recommendations addressed in the DOJ’s Advisory.” Of course, that kind of progress didn’t stop the Trump Administration from withdrawing the advisory.
—And he broke federal law in making it easier for law enforcement agencies to unlawfully seize property. Civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement agencies to seize personal property without proving an individual committed a crime, has been widely criticized by conservatives and progressives alike. It raises due process and racial justice concerns, and incentivizes law enforcement to seek out forfeitures that generate revenue at the expense of other policing priorities. While several states have outlawed or restricted the practice, a federal program allowed local police to skirt state law by having a federal law enforcement agency “process” or “adopt” the property they seize. In 2015, DOJ ended the federal program, except in extremely limited cases. But last July, Trump’s DOJ issued an order reversing course and once again providing local law enforcement agencies federal cover to unlawfully seize property from Americans.
SIDEBAR: In reinstituting the asset forfeiture program, Trump didn’t just damage public safety, he also broke federal law. When a substantive policy is reversed, federal agencies are generally required to acknowledge the change and provide some explanation for the reversal. But in reversing course, and once again allowing federal “adoption” of civil asset forfeiture, the Trump Administration’s cursory order failed to meet that standard.