Originally Published on USA Today
After President Trump's surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey, the flurry of comparisons to President Nixon started to fly. But the comparison could just as easily have been made to Trump's intentions toward criminal justice.
Trump campaigned on law and order, stating that under his watch "safety would be restored." He was echoing the campaign promises made by Nixon during his 1968 run, where he announced, "We are to restore order and respect for law in this country."
The Nixon administration was decisive, setting the trend for the enactment of a series of law-and-order regulations. Now, it appears the Trump administration is following suit. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered stricter federal criminal sentencing guidance. Prosecutors should "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense," he wrote, a move that will increase incarceration rates.
The United States has 2.2 million people in prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the past four decades. It has dubiously earned America the most-incarcerated-country-in-the-world award. However, between 2010 and 2015, the national imprisonment rate actually declined 8.4%. For the first time in 40 years, the number of prisoners started to decrease instead of increasing yearly. Notably, the nation's crime rate remained at a 20-year low. Criminal justice finally appeared to be going in the right direction.
Then Trump took office.
Trump says one thing, proposes another
In February, barely a month into his administration, the Department of Justice made the most pronounced change. It decided to reinstate the use of private prisons for federal incarceration, rescinding a key order made by the Obama administration just months earlier to "phase out" their use. In the memo, Sessions said private prisons were necessary "to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system." In other words, the law-and-order mantra of Trump's campaign was about to be realized — incarceration rates are about to ramp up.
But after the fact, the administration released its 2018 budget, indicating an overall reduction in correctional spending. With an announced decrease in Department of Justice spending to the tune of $1.1 billion, his proposed budget actually forecasted a move toward less incarceration — affecting the Crime Victims Fund and the Asset Forfeiture Fund, both designed to reimburse state prisons and county jails for incarcerating undocumented immigrants. Furthering that notion, other crucial funds contributing to mass incarceration were also on the chopping block.
So which is it: a galvanizing of Nixon-sparked mass incarceration or continuing the Obama trend of chipping away at it?
The sentencing guidance formally rescinds the prior administration's policies that successfully lowered federal incarceration rates. Perhaps the biggest clue to the direction of this administration came when the president instituted new executive actions, including the Restoring Community Safety Act, which pledges increased funding for programs that train and assist police. The act was backed up in the proposed budget by a $175 million increase in law enforcement spending. But historically, this is the kind of action that has led to the types of aggressive policing practices that Trump promised on the campaign trail — the sort that heavily contributes to higher incarceration rates.
States, rather than federal government, control most U.S. correctional policy. However, president-enforced spending on increased policing and reactive bolstering of policies surrounding it are what got us into the mass incarceration situation our country is in now. From Nixon through Bill Clinton, this was precisely the way law-and-order promises by presidents have gotten done. Trump and Sessions want to continue this tradition.
For now, the progress of national criminal justice reform seems to have merely stalled. After just a few short months, we have reason to believe we're on the path backwards in history. For those fighting for reforms, it's safest to assume that this is just the calm before the storm. The writing is on the wall.
Bianca Clark is the executive director of Prison Lives, a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.