Justice Update: President Misleads on Crime, Republicans Push for Sentencing Reform

February 24, 2017

President Trump Uses False Crime Claims to Push Controversial Policies

President Donald Trump continues to mislead Americans about crime rates as they justify his most controversial policies, argued Inimai Chettiar and Ames Grawert in The Daily Beast.

“Overall crime rates in America stand at or near lows not seen since the 1960s,” they wrote. “There is no national crime wave.”

According to the FBI’s 2015 Uniform Crime Report data, the overall crime rate dropped by 2.6 percent, decreasing for the 14th year in a row. A Brennan Center analysis of 2016 crime rates in the nation’s 30 largest cities projected that the overall rate will remain roughly the same as it was in 2015. Both reports find that murder increased in select cities, skewing the national average murder rate.

Chettiar and Grawert argue that if “the myth of a crime wave were removed, the defense for so many of these new policies would crumble,” saying it provides a foundation for decisions to ban immigrants from Muslim countries, build a border wall, and push for more aggressive policing. Chettiar also discussed it on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Trump decried America’s rising crime throughout the campaign using debunked numbers, and since taking the oath of office has repeated his false claims from his inauguration address and the White House website to a conversation with sheriffs to a Republican lawmaker retreat in Philadelphia.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions echoed Trump’s sentiments at his own swearing in ceremony this month, saying the nation’s “crime problem” is a “dangerous permanent trend that puts the health and safety of the American people at risk.” Trump signed three executive orders related to public safety that same day. One creates a task force to combat crime, another tackles violent crimes against law enforcement, and the other aims to root out drug cartels in the country.

Though there is no national crime wave, the president has rightly cited crime in Chicago as concerning. The Brennan Center’s 2016 analysis found that the city accounted for nearly 45 percent of the total increase in murders from 2015 to 2016.

Read more in USA Today, The Washington Post, Slate, and U.S. News & World Report.

Republicans Push for Sentencing Reform

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley have both committed to re-introducing sentencing reform legislation in 2017 aimed at reducing the federal prison population. Ryan said in a recent interview that reform is a “long-time in coming” and “something we should do.” Grassley’s bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, passed out of his committee with strong bipartisan support last year. It was also backed by law enforcement.

Reducing mass incarceration in America has become an area of common ground for Republicans and Democrats. Members of both parties agree that our current system disproportionally effects communities of color, and is unsustainably expensive with little public safety gain.

Holly Harris, executive director of U.S. Justice Action Network, penned a recent piece in Foreign Affairs about the growing bipartisan support. In it, she also said “the Trump administration can hold government accountable by backing federal incentives for states that safely decrease their prison populations and reconsider ineffective sentencing regimes,” paralleling a Brennan Center proposal called The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act.

Judges who’ve had front-row seats to the justice system also want to see change. Judge Shira Scheindlin, a former federal judge in the Southern District of New York, shared her thoughts in The Washington Post last week.

As Vox notes, “even though the prison population has dramatically risen the past few decades, researchers have found that it didn’t do much to reduce crime: A 2015 review of the research by the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that more incarceration explained 0 to 7 percent of the crime drop since the 1990s, while other researchers estimate it drove 10 to 25 percent of the crime drop since the ’90s.”

Some of that cost falls to inmates and their families. Lauren-Brooke Eisen told The Atlantic that user-funded systems are “a common theme.”

“Fines and fees are so broad,” she continued. “You can look at all the fees you’re charged from arrest, booking, and then all the fees in court, pre-trial fees. Then once you’re incarcerated all the fees there. And, once you’re released, you’re in debt.”

Read more in Charging Inmates Perpetuates Mass Incarceration.

Research Roundup

  • A new publication by The Sentencing Project finds that while the overall prison population has fallen in recent years, the number of people serving life sentences continues to grow. The report attributes this to two primary factors: the increased imposition of life sentences, particularly those that are parole ineligible, and an increased reluctance to grant parole to the 110,000 eligible people already serving life sentences.
  • Expanding access to postsecondary education in prisons decreases recidivism rates, increases facility safety and saves money according to a new fact sheet from the Vera Institute of Justice. The Second Chance Pell Experiment, a U.S. Department of Education initiative, provides up to 12,000 incarcerated students in more than 100 state and federal prisons the opportunity to obtain postsecondary education and training in both academic and career-technical programs. Despite this, there is significant unmet need as many prisons with postsecondary education programs have waiting lists for enrollment.
  • A January report by the Prison Policy Initiative found that mass incarceration costs the government and families of justice-involved individuals at least $182 billion every year — from $109.7 billion in public corrections agencies (prisons, jails probation and parole) and judicial and legal costs to $1.4 billion in bail fees and $2.9 billion in commissary and telephone calls.