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Trump’s criminal justice record is more complicated than he claims

Although the First Step Act has its achievements, the Department of Justice has been slowing down the process.

President Trump delivers the State of the Union address on February 4, 2020.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

President Trump didn’t miss the opportunity to portray himself as a champion of criminal justice reform during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday. But a fuller look at his record is more complicated.

“Our roaring economy has, for the first time ever, given many former prisoners the ability to get a great job and a fresh start. This second chance at life is made possible because we passed landmark criminal justice reform into law. Everybody said that criminal justice reform could not be done, but I got it done, and the people in this room got it done,” he said.

To be fair, the First Step Act, Trump’s landmark criminal justice law, is commendable. More than 3,000 people have been released thanks to the law’s effort to take good behavior while incarcerated into account. And by retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine charges, over 2,000 people received sentencing reductions — 91 percent of them were African Americans, according to the Sentencing Project. 342 people have also been released into the elderly home confinement pilot program.

The problem, however, is that the Department of Justice has “attempted to block hundreds of eligible beneficiaries” and send those released back behind bars, according to the Sentencing Project.

It may not be too surprising considering that Attorney General William Barr had expressed his concerns about the First Step Act behind closed doors, according to the Washington Post. The publication found that Barr thought the early release could drive up crime numbers and put the administration in a bad light.

As a result, the department has tried to freeze applications or re-incarcerate former inmates by setting higher standards for their release. Rather than judge their eligibility based on how much crack they possessed when convicted, DOJ argued that they should consider the largest amount of crack the inmate may have admitted to owning. Several federal judges have rejected this interpretation of the law, although at least five have agreed, according to the Post. Some have simply withheld their decision — further delaying the process.

DOJ’s challenges to the First Step Act has “a chilling psychological effect on those who have been released or are petitioning for release,” according to a USA Today column from criminal justice reform activists Fred Davie and Julio Medina.

“Those benefiting from a sentence reduction cannot live in fear and should be provided with the proper training and tools to reenter society. Unfair treatment could adversely impact their ability to successfully assimilate,” they wrote.

And beyond the disruption of the Justice Department, there’s a lot to be accomplished for the First Step Act to reach its full potential. Funding falls far short of the $75 million authorized by Congress. Many prisons lack both the space and money to hold vocational, educational, mental health, and substance abuse programming. And the government has yet to expand the Second Step Act, which promised to help break barriers in employment after release. Until all these issues are addressed, Trump’s criminal justice efforts — and the speeches he makes about them — remain lackluster.