Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Efforts Likely to Suffer Under Trump

Posted Feb. 1, 2017

MP3 Interview with Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Criminal justice issues have so far taken a back seat to the Trump administration’s early executive orders restricting the entry of immigrants and refugees, building the Mexican border wall – and the president’s nomination of conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But, starting with the fact that candidate Trump supported the death penalty and torture - and called himself the “law and order candidate,” – those working to reform the U.S. criminal justice system and reduce the prison and jail population of 2.2 million are very concerned. Their worry is focused on what issues may be addressed in future executive orders, or new legislation from the Republican-controlled Congress.

Marc Mauer is executive director of the Sentencing Project, a group which researches alternatives to the nation’s prison-industrial complex. He notes that in 1970 the U.S. held 300,000 prisoners, but that number grew in 2016 to 2.2 million, a seven-fold increase. In recent years, the number of inmates has declined slightly as a result of changes at the federal level and in some states. But despite the reductions, the U.S. still holds more prisoners than any other country in the world. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Marc Mauer, who lays out some of the likely changes in direction on criminal justice from policies carried out under the Obama administration these past eight years.

MARC MAUER: We don't really know yet what the criminal justice agenda is going to look like. On the one hand, we've had several years of building bipartisan support in Congress for sentencing reform. Sen. Grassley chairs the Judiciary Committee, long-time Republican conservative, had been a leading sponsor and proud to be sponsoring a sentencing reform bill, and we saw related bills in the House. The new president, though, to the extent he has any history on these issues, you know he announced on the campaign trail he's the law and order candidate; he's made some fairly vicious statements in the past advocating for a death penalty and other harsh punishments. So we don't know how that conflict will be resolved.

The other issue of course is the next attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions having been nominated. Sen. Sessions, in addition to all his beliefs and policies regarding immigration, other issues on criminal justice policy, he's been a very much tough on crime advocate for a long time. He was an opponent of the sentencing reform legislation in Congress when it passed through the Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan vote. He was one of a number of Republicans who voted against it. He hasn't said much about what his priorities will be, but we're not terribly optimistic at that level, either.

As well, the civil rights division of the Justice Department has been very aggressive and responding broadly to the tensions between law enforcement and African American communities, developed consent degrees, been involved in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, many other cities. Sen. Sessions has made it pretty clear he's not very interested in pursuing that line of action and is essentially a law enforcement supporter and doesn't seem like he's terribly interested in dealing with tensions in any other kinds of ways right now.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Marc Mauer, I've been hearing mention of Trump's support for private prisons. This with the backdrop of the federal government, at least, announcing last year that it is moving away from private prisons. What can you say about that move, and about Trump's plans, if any, in this regard?

MARC MAUER: The federal government's been a major contractor with private prisons, but as a result of a very critical report by the Inspector General of the Justice Department regarding what happens in private prisons, and also the fact that the federal prison population has been declining, there's less need for them to contract out for those beds. Following that announcement, the stock of the major private prison companies went down 35 percent the next day, then the day after the election in November, the stock of the private prison companies went up 40 percent. Numerous studies have documented higher levels of abuse, poor training of staff, high turnover, poor management, not to mention that they generally don't save any significant amount of money, either. Having said that, that doesn't suggest that public prisons, whether they are federal or state, are necessarily doing a good job or avoiding those issues.

Now, we haven't heard specific policy recommendations from Sen. Sessions or the White House so far, but everything in the past suggests they would be much more favorably inclined to look toward private prison operators – just part of their general belief in the private sector. So this is a very troubling development. Unless they have plans to dramatically increase the federal prison population, it’s really uncalled for, because with the population declining they can handle the number of people they have in prison through the regular federal prisons, so it's partly a question of ideology versus practicality and money and how they come out on all these issues.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, give me a temperature check on the issue of criminal justice reform as you see it right now.

MARC MAUER: You know, nearly 90 percent of the people behind bars are at the state or local level. There's some reason for hope there. A good number of states have enacted policy reforms in recent years, specifically for lower-level drug offenses, also around community supervision and how people are re-entering the community, and most of those states are relatively pleased with the results they’ve seen so far. So, I think there’s a pretty big gap between what goes on in Washington and what happens at the state level. So, regardless of the rhetoric or policy at the federal level, I think there’s good reason to believe that much of that reform momentum at the state level can continue in the next several years.

Learn more about the criminal justice reform work of the project by visiting the Sentencing Project website at

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