Fact Sheet: Trump Says One Thing and Does Another on Criminal Justice
This factsheet contains an update.
An earlier version of this list appeared in American Progress’s Infographic: President Trump is Falsely Claiming He is a Criminal Justice Reformer.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed ownership of criminal reform because he signed the FIRST STEP Act—a bipartisan federal sentencing and prison reform bill. A month after signing the bill, he proclaimed, “I did criminal justice reform, nobody else. I did it. Without me, you don’t have criminal justice reform.” In fall 2019, he again declared, “I did criminal justice reform, which President Obama could not get approved—which the media never talks about. If President Obama got criminal justice reform done, it would be front-page stories all over the place. I got it done.”1 But these claims fly in the face of nearly every action this administration has taken, most of which are antithetical to reform efforts.
Too often, the full context of the Trump administration’s record on criminal justice reform is obscured by celebrities visiting the White House and award ceremonies.2 However, behind the scenes, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) regularly contravenes the efforts of the criminal justice reform movement. Collected here are a list of those anti-reform actions to date:
- Restricted clemency to only those who are celebrities, well-connected individuals, or have a personal affiliation with the president3*
- Encouraged the use of excessive police force on peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors4*
- Threatened maximum sentences for vandalism of monuments5*
- Restarted federal executions after a 17-year informal moratorium on federal capital punishment6*
- Secretly altered the risk assessment authorized in the FIRST Step Act to drastically reduce the number of federally incarcerated people eligible to be released to subdue the spread of COVID-197*
- Denied federal coronavirus relief funding to small business owners with a criminal record8*
- Argued in court against people eligible for sentence reductions under the FIRST STEP Act9
- Jeopardized the FIRST STEP Act by underfunding its programs10
- Reinstated DOJ contracts with private prisons11
- Left director of the Bureau of Prisons position vacant for more than a year12
- Disbanded a program to create federal prison education systems13
- Closed halfway houses that help those incarcerated transition back to the community14
- Prohibited federal investigations of patterns of unconstitutional policing15
- Stopped assistance to police departments that voluntarily wanted reform16
- Eliminated restrictions preventing police departments from obtaining military equipment17
- Eliminated community-based violence prevention programs18
- Condemned public criticism of police by threatening that protestors “might find themselves without the protection they need”19
- Eliminated DOJ community policing program grants in proposed executive budget20
- Attacked prosecutors who are pursuing criminal justice reform in their communitites21
- Proposed to eliminate a DOJ office dedicated to help communities reduce racial conflict22
- Rescinded federal guidance meant to stem the flow of the school to prison pipeline23
- Ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest punishments possible24
- Threatened federal prosecutions for marijuana in states where it is legal25
- Attempted to resume use of the federal death penalty and encouraged expansion of the death penalty in drug cases26
- Waged the same failed war on drugs from the 80s27
- Attempted to force federal job candidates to disclose participation in diversion programs28
- Expanded the federal use of civil asset forfeiture29
- Suspended the national forensic science commission30
- Failed to report on deaths in police custody as required by Congress31
- Disbanded the DOJ Science Advisory Board that provided evidence-based rigor to DOJ policies32
- Rescinded DOJ guidance that warned courts against excessive fees and fines33
Lea Hunter is a former research associate for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. Ed Chung is the vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center. Akua Amaning is an associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center.
*Update, August 14, 2020: This fact sheet has been updated in an effort to address the Trump administration’s actions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and national unrest in response to incidents of police brutality.
- White House, “Remarks by President Trump Before Marine One Departure,” November 3, 2019, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-marine-one-departure-74/; White House, “Remarks by President Trump Before Marine One Departure,” August 9, 2019, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-marine-one-departure-59/.
- BBC News, “Kim Kardashian West talks criminal justice at White House,” June 13, 2019, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-48631992/kim-kardashian-west-talks-criminal-justice-at-white-house; Kavin Freking and Meg Kinnard, “Watch: Trump Takes Victory Lap on Criminal Justice Reform in South Carolina,” PBS NewsHour, October 25, 2019, available at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/watch-trump-takes-victory-lap-on-criminal-justice-reform-in-south-carolina.
- S. Department of Justice, “Clemency Statistics,” July 14, 2020, available at https://www.justice.gov/pardon/clemency-statistics; Matthew S. Schwartz, “Roger Stone Clemency Latest Example of Trump Rewarding His Friends, Scholars Say,” July 12, 2020, available at https://www.npr.org/2020/07/12/890075577/roger-stone-clemency-latest-example-of-trump-rewarding-his-friends-scholars-say.
- Quint Forgey, “Trump Threatens to Unleash Gunfire on Minnesota Protesters,” Politico, May 29, 2020, available at https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/29/trump-threatens-to-unleash-gunfire-on-minnesota-protesters-288406.
- Barbara Sprunt, “Trump Vows Prison Time For Attempts to Topple Statues. Here’s The Law He Cites,” NPR, June 23, 2020, available at https://www.npr.org/2020/06/23/882020026/trump-threatens-prison-for-attempts-to-topple-statues-heres-the-law-he-cites.
- Hailey Fuchs, “Government Carries Out First Federal Execution in 17 Years,” The New York Times, July 14, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/daniel-lewis-lee-execution-crime.html.
- Joseph Neff and Keri Blakinger, “Few Federal Prisoners Released Under COVID-19 Emergency Policies,” The Marshall Project, April 25, 2020, available at https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/04/25/few-federal-prisoners-released-under-covid-19-emergency-policies. Ian MacDougal, “Bill Barr Promised to Release Prisoners Threatened by Coronavirus — Even as the Feds Secretly Made It Harder for Them to Get Out,” ProPublica, May 26, 2020, available at https://www.propublica.org/article/bill-barr-promised-to-release-prisoners-threatened-by-coronavirus-even-as-the-feds-secretly-made-it-harder-for-them-to-get-out.
- Alex Sherman, “Formerly Incarcerated Americans Were Excluded From Federal COVID-19 Relief,” The Appeal, April 20, 2020, available at https://theappeal.org/coronavirus-formerly-incarcerated-americans-excluded-from-federal-relief/.
- Neena Satija, Wesley Lowery, and Josh Dawsey, “Trump Boasts That his Landmark Law is Freeing These Inmates. His Justice Department Wants Them to Stay in Prison,” The Washington Post, November 7, 2019, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/trump-brags-that-his-landmark-law-freed-these-inmates-his-justice-department-wants-them-to-stay-in-prison/2019/11/07/5f075456-f5db-11e9-a285-882a8e386a96_story.html.
- Justin George, “First Step Act Comes Up Short in Trump’s 2020 Budget,” The Marshall Project, March 12, 2019, available at https://www.themarshallproject.org/2019/03/12/first-step-act-comes-up-short-in-trump-s-2020-budget.
- Lauren-Brooke Eisen, “Trump’s First Year Has Been the Private Prison Industry’s Best,” Salon, January 14, 2018, available at https://www.salon.com/2018/01/14/trumps-first-year-has-been-the-private-prison-industrys-best/.
- Kevin Johnson, “Federal Prisons Chief Mark Inch Abruptly Resigns From Job He Took Over in September,” USA Today, May 18, 2018, available at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/05/18/mark-inch-chief-federal-bureau-prisons-resigns-abruptly/623252002/; Alexander Mallin and Luke Barr, “AG Barr Appoints new Bureau of Prisons Director Amid Controversy Over Suicide Death of Jeffrey Epstein,” ABC News, August 19, 2019, available at https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/ag-barr-appoints-bureau-prisons-director-amid-controversy/story?id=65059130.
- Ryan J. Reilly and Julia Craven, “Federal Bureau of Prisons Fires and Obama-Era Education Effort, Reform Under Trump in Doubt,” Huffpost, May 19, 2017, available at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/bureau-of-prisons-education-reform_n_591f2289e4b094cdba53c398.
- Justin George, “President Trump Says He Wants to Reform Prisons. His Attorney General Has Other Ideas,” Politico, October 25, 2018, available https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/10/25/trump-sessions-prison-reform-criminal-justice-halfway-houses-investigation-221908.
- Ed Chung, “The Trump Administration is Putting DOJ Policing Reform Efforts At Risk,” Center for American Progress, April 13, 2017, available https://americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/news/2017/04/13/430461/trump-administration-putting-doj-policing-reform-efforts-risk/.
- U.S. Department of Justice, “Department of Justice Announces Changes to the Collaborative Reform Initiative,” Press release, September 15, 2017, available at https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/department-justice-announces-changes-collaborative-reform-initiative.
- Kevin Johnson, “Trump Lifts Ban on Military Gear to Local Police Forces,” USA Today, August 27, 2017, available at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/08/27/trump-expected-lift-ban-military-gear-local-police-forces/606065001/.
- Ed Chung, Chelsea Parsons, and Danyelle Solomon, “The Right Way to ‘Send in the Feds,’” Center for American Progress, June 19, 2017, available at https://americanprogress.org/issues/guns-crime/reports/2017/06/19/434601/right-way-send-feds/.
- Tim Elfrink, “William Barr Says ‘communities’ that protest cops could lose ‘the police protection they need,’” The Washington Post, December 4, 2019, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/12/04/william-barr-police-protests-communities-race/.
- The Marshall Project, “Trump Budget Draft Targets Cops, Crime Victims,” January 19, 2017, available at https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/01/19/trump-budget-draft-targets-cops-crime-victims.
- John Pfaff, “A No-Holds-Barred Assault On Prosecutors,” The Appeal, August 13, 2019, available at https://theappeal.org/bill-barr-prosecutors/.
- Jacqueline Thomsen, “Justice Dept. Proposes Eliminating Office that Helps Communities Combat Racial Conflict,” The Hill, February 12, 2018, available at https://thehill.com/regulation/373545-justice-dept-proposes-eliminating-office-that-helps-communities-combat-racial.
- Lauren Camera, “Study Contradicts Betsy DeVos’ Reason for Eliminating School Discipline Guidance,” U.S. News and World Report, January 4, 2019, available at https://www.usnews.com/news/education-news/articles/2019-01-04/study-contradicts-betsy-devos-reason-for-eliminating-school-discipline-guidance.
- Office of the Attorney General, “Department Charging and Sentencing Policy,” Memorandum for All Federal Prosecutors, May 10, 2017, available at https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/965896/download.
- Matt Zapotosky, Sari Horwitz, and Joel Achenbach, “Use of Legalized Marijuana Threatened as Sessions Rescinds Obama-era Directive that Ease Federal Enforcement,” The Washington Post, January 4, 2018, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/sessions-is-rescinding-obama-era-directive-for-feds-to-back-off-marijuana-enforcement-in-states-with-legal-pot/2018/01/04/b1a42746-f157-11e7-b3bf-ab90a706e175_story.html.
- Sarah N. Lynch, “Trump Administration Asks Top Court to Allow It To Resume Federal Executions,” Reuters, December 2, 2019, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-court-deathpenalty/trump-administration-asks-top-court-to-allow-it-to-resume-federal-executions-idUSKBN1Y628Q; Kevin Breuninger, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions Outlines When to Use Death Penalty on Drug Traffickers,” CNBC, March 21, 2018, available at https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/21/attorney-general-jeff-sessions-outlines-death-penalty-use-for-drug-crimes.html.
- Nancy Gertner, “William Barr’s New War On Drugs,” The Washington Post, January 26, 2020, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/26/william-barrs-new-war-drugs/.
- Lisa Rein, “White House Kills Plan for Expanded Criminal Background Checks for Federal Jobs,” The Washington Post, May 29, 2019, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/white-house-kills-plan-for-expanded-criminal-background-checks-for-federal-jobs/2019/05/29/109e7562-8216-11e9-933d-7501070ee669_story.html?noredirect=on.
- Office of the Attorney General, “Attorney General Sessions Issues Policy and Guidelines on Federal Adoptions of Assets Seized by State of Local Law Enforcement,” Press release, July 19, 2017, available at https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-sessions-issues-policy-and-guidelines-federal-adoptions-assets-seized-state.
- Spencer S. Hsu, “Sessions Orders Justice Dept. To End Forensic Science Commission, Suspend Review Policy,” The Washington Post, April 10, 2017, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/sessions-orders-justice-dept-to-end-forensic-science-commission-suspend-review-policy/2017/04/10/2dada0ca-1c96-11e7-9887-1a5314b56a08_story.html.
- Associated Press, “Government Fails to Release Data on Deaths in Police Custody,” June 19, 2019, available at https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2019-06-18/government-fails-to-release-data-on-deaths-in-police-custody.
- Jeffrey Butts, “Science Takes a Hit at the Department of Justice,” The Crime Report, December 6, 2018, available at https://thecrimereport.org/2018/12/06/science-takes-a-hit-at-the-department-of-justice/.
- Matt Zapotosky, “Sessions rescinds Justice Dept. Letter Asking Courts to Be Wary of Stiff Fines and Fees for Poor Defendants,” The Washington Post, December 21, 2017, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/sessions-rescinds-justice-dept-letter-asking-courts-to-be-wary-of-stiff-fines-and-fees-for-poor-defendants/2017/12/21/46e37316-e690-11e7-ab50-621fe0588340_story.html.
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Director, Criminal Justice Reform