The Trump legacy on prison reform has been largely cast over by mainstream media outlets.
One expert in the field of criminal justice, however, is quick to contextualize how the Trump legacy has altered the course of criminal justice reform. Alec Klein is an award-winning journalist who leads groundbreaking investigations into wrongful convictions and is the author of the book Aftermath: When It Felt Like Life Was Over.
In an interview with Newsmax, Klein offered an outline of the history of criminal justice legislation leading up to the Trump administration.
"I think from a 30,000-foot view, there had been before President Trump's administration a big move to crack down on crime with the rise of crack cocaine in the '80s and '90s," he said. "There had been the mandatory minimum of sentencing, the three strikes policy, which were all enacted around the time that Biden was in the Senate.
"Flash forward to when Trump was president. One of the significant acts he made was the 'First Step Act,' which was bipartisan, and it resulted in lower sentences and gave judges latitude when it came to sentencing. Thousands of people were being released early and there's no question that this was a huge move in the right direction."
Klein's commentary on where the future lies for criminal justice reform is ambivalent. In his words, "We still incarcerate more people per capita than many other countries, and sometimes those people behind bars were sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses. Women had been the predominant group, but these people need treatment rather than incarceration. I know that President Biden has been on record saying he's in favor of reform, but that's a major evolution from the position in the Senate that he took with his colleagues. President Trump had an impact because of his use of the bully pulpit."
Klein also weighed in on how Vice President Kamala Harris' past drug enforcement record may effect the Biden administration's view on criminal justice reform.
"When it comes to Vice President Kamala Harris, there has been a large controversy about her prior role as a prosecutor for marijuana drug offenses," said Klein, "Now, two-thirds of the states have legalized some form of marijuana use. So there is a strange dichotomy because how do we rationalize the government making legal sales of marijuana and why we have all of the people in jail. What do we do about it?
"We have grassroots movements that are trying to get peoples' records expunged because [legalization and decriminalization] are two related movements. While Congress has debated national legalization, the issue impacts how this new administration sees criminal justice reform."
The Trump record on criminal justice reform, as "Aftermath" illustrates, received widespread bipartisan praise. With even then-Senator Kamala Harris voting for the First Step Act, the measure was widely credited for changing the tide throughout the past few decades.
What the Biden administration, with the reforms it inherited, and where it takes the issue of criminal justice and prison administration remains to be seen.
Michael Cozzi is a Ph.D candidate at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
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