Trump's Afterthought on Pardons Shows Why Real Sentencing Reform is Needed

President Trump acknowledged that those who could benefit from a presidential pardon “have sentences that aren’t fair.” If he really believes as much, he should support efforts to reduce mandatory minimums that are unnecessarily incarcerating thousands of Americans.

June 12, 2018

In typical fashion, President Trump bumbled his way into a good point before taking off for his unnecessary showdown with the country’s longest-standing allies on Friday. In the wake of the Kardashian-inspired pardon of Alice Marie Johnson, he mentioned potentially pardoning Muhammad Ali (nevermind the details: Ali’s conviction for refusing military service in Vietnam was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971) and asked NFL players concerned with the country’s criminal justice system to recommend “friends or people they know about” for pardons.  

But in a surprisingly truthful afterthought, the president acknowledged that those who could benefit from a presidential pardon “have sentences that aren’t fair.” On that, he’s right on. And if he really believes as much, he should support efforts to reduce mandatory minimums that are unnecessarily incarcerating thousands of Americans.

Indeed, over the past three decades, Congress has passed more than a hundred new laws imposing mandatory minimum sentences — which sap discretion from judges and juries and instead slap arbitrary penalties on federal crimes. That’s led to a seven-fold increase in the federal prison population. Over the same period, federal prison spending has ballooned more than 600 percent.

Despite the growing bipartisan consensus to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimums (which may have spared Kim Kardashian the Oval Office visit), the president and his extremist Attorney General Jeff Sessions have unveiled a tepid prison reform bill, called the FIRST STEP Act, that sailed through the House earlier this spring.

The FIRST STEP Act implements some basic reforms (like training programs and banning the shackling of pregnant women) but does virtually nothing to materially lessen lengthy sentences that make our federal justice system so fundamentally unfair. That’s part of the reason that Sen. Chuck Grassley, the powerful Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has publicly rebuked the piecemeal Trump bill and is now pushing for the Senate to attach substantive sentencing reform to any new legislation.

Somehow, one of the chamber’s most conservative members has become the last best hope for criminal justice reformers.

Grassley in February got his committee to advance the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bill that would begin repairing the broken federal criminal justice system by reducing mandatory minimum sentences, at least for nonviolent offenders. The result: some 2,500 people each year would receive a sentence reduction between 22 and 50 percent, and more than 6,000 drug offenders would be immediately eligible for a sentence reduction of nearly 30 percent.

In short, the people harmed most by our unfair federal justice system would see drastic reductions in their sentences. And over the long term, the obliteration of mandatory minimums would keep low-level, nonviolent offenders out of costly prisons and allow us to redirect federal funds to do things like improve community policing and provide treatment for those with substance use disorders.

The reality is that at least four in every ten federal prisoners are unnecessarily incarcerated. And our data show that over the decades, our country’s unconscionably high incarceration rate has had virtually zero impact on crime overall. Warehousing of humans isn’t just a grave moral wrong – it’s a costly mistake that has destroyed communities and economies across the country.

What’s more, unlike the FIRST STEP bill, Grassley’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is the product of actual bipartisan agreement (not to mention agreement among the Koch brothers, law enforcement, and the civil rights community…not every day you get all those folks on the same page). This strong bipartisan backing for sentencing reform is what makes the silence or support for the more modest reforms laid out in Trump’s prison reform bill by many Democrats so disheartening. 

These Democrats may think it’s time to take a small win and try to build on it. After all, the White House bill is called the FIRST STEP Act for a reason. Our fear is that it will also be the last step. To be sure, the bill in its current form will do a limited amount of good. But it could also derail broader reform, allowing the bill’s proponents to congratulate themselves on a job unfinished.

Congress should pass a bill that will address the problem of unfair sentences—whether that’s the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act or a combination of that bill and the reforms outlined in FIRST STEP. But doing the latter on its own would be insufficient.

Pundits continue to assign motives to Trump’s itchy pardon finger. He’s sending a message to Mueller! He’s sending a message to Michael Cohen! He’s playing with a shiny new toy! But the reality is, this time, the president has acknowledged the fundamental unfairness of our criminal justice system. And instead of celebrity-inspired pardons and one-offs, there’s an opening for real reform.

We’d be foolish not to take it.