Fact Sheet: Trump Says One Thing and Does Another on Criminal Justice

Download the PDF here.

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 photo ops and public events.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:

  1. Argued in court against people eligible for sentence reductions under the FIRST STEP Act3
  2. Jeopardized the FIRST STEP Act by underfunding its programs4
  3. Reinstated DOJ contracts with private prisons5
  4. Left director of the Bureau of Prisons position vacant for more than a year6
  5. Disbanded a program to create federal prison education systems7
  6. Closed halfway houses that help those incarcerated transition back to the community8
  7. Prohibited federal investigations of patterns of unconstitutional policing9
  8. Stopped assistance to police departments that voluntarily wanted reform10
  9. Eliminated restrictions preventing police departments from obtaining military equipment11
  10. Eliminated community-based violence prevention programs12
  11. Condemned public criticism of police by threatening that protestors “might find themselves without the protection they need”13
  12. Eliminated DOJ community policing program grants in proposed executive budget14
  13. Attacked prosecutors who are pursuing criminal justice reform in their communitites15
  14. Proposed to eliminate a DOJ office dedicated to help communities reduce racial conflict16
  15. Rescinded federal guidance meant to stem the flow of the school to prison pipeline17
  16. Ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest punishments possible18
  17. Threatened federal prosecutions for marijuana in states where it is legal19
  18. Attempted to resume use of the federal death penalty and encouraged expansion of the death penalty in drug cases20
  19. Waged the same failed war on drugs from the 80s21
  20. Attempted to force federal job candidates to disclose participation in diversion programs22
  21. Expanded the federal use of civil asset forfeiture23
  22. Suspended the national forensic science commission24
  23. Failed to report on deaths in police custody as required by Congress25
  24. Disbanded the DOJ Science Advisory Board that provided evidence-based rigor to DOJ policies26
  25. Rescinded DOJ guidance that warned courts against excessive fees and fines27

Lea Hunter is a 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.


  1. 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/.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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/.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Ed Chung, “The Trump Administration is Putting DOJ Policing Reform Efforts At Risk,” Center for American Progress, April 13, 2017, available https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/news/2017/04/13/430461/trump-administration-putting-doj-policing-reform-efforts-risk/.
  10. 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.
  11. 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/.
  12. 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://www.americanprogress.org/issues/guns-crime/reports/2017/06/19/434601/right-way-send-feds/.
  13. 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/.
  14. 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.
  15. John Pfaff, “A No-Holds-Barred Assault On Prosecutors,” The Appeal, August 13, 2019, available at https://theappeal.org/bill-barr-prosecutors/.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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/.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
  26. 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/.
  27. 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.