President Donald Trump talked “tough on crime” on the campaign trail, dubbing himself the “law and order” candidate and calling for longer prison sentences for drugs. All of that seemed to indicate that Trump was ready to double down on the mass incarceration policies of the pre-Obama years.
But Trump’s proposed budget, where he has a chance to put those words into action, suggest the federal government will continue moving toward less incarceration.
According to the budget blueprint released on Thursday, Trump’s budget plan would cut almost $1 billion in federal prison construction spending “due to excess capacity resulting from an approximate 14 percent decrease in the prison population since 2013.” While the budget would add $80 million to deal with overcrowding at some facilities and $113 million “to repair and modernize outdated prisons,” none of that would seemingly be enough to overcome nearly $1 billion in overall cuts to prisons.
A few caveats: This is taken from a very vague budget blueprint; it’s possible that the blueprint isn’t telling the whole story, so the specific numbers may change. The full plan also needs approval from Congress before it becomes law, which seems unlikely.
And Trump’s budget also hints at some actual “tough on crime” measures, including a $175 million increase in law enforcement spending “to target the worst of the worst criminal organizations and drug traffickers in order to address violent crime, gun-related deaths, and the opioid epidemic.” Historically, this kind of spending has led to more aggressive policing tactics that have contributed to mass incarceration.
Still, for criminal justice reformers it must be somewhat encouraging that Trump’s budget acknowledges that mass incarceration is on the decline, and that the Trump administration seemingly does not believe they’ll do anything to reverse that decline — to the point that they’re comfortable building fewer prisons.
As welcoming as the acknowledgment may be for criminal justice reformers, it’s worth keeping in mind that the federal government plays a relatively small role with mass incarceration. Around 86 percent of people in prison and jail are in either a local or state facility, while the remaining 14 percent are in a federal one, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. So while a decrease in federal prisons is notable, it’s only a small part of the overall story as federal and state officials move to undo mass incarceration.
For more on mass incarceration, read Vox’s explainer.