The Trump administration’s work to reform the nation’s criminal justice system has left the Biden administration “without excuse” on the issue, according to a liberal-leaning activist.
In December 2018, then-President Donald Trump signed into law the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill containing new sentencing guidelines and provisions meant to help ex-convicts transition back into society after they’ve served their time. The bill also banned the shackling of pregnant inmates in federal prisons.
Within months, the legislation’s passage led to the early release of thousands of federal inmates, according to the Department of Justice.
“As someone who leans left, one of the things that I espouse is that Republicans at their best believe in liberty, Democrats at their best believe in justice, and all of us at our best should be believing in liberty and justice for all, specifically around the issue of criminal justice reform,” said Louis L. Reed, director of organizing and partnerships for the criminal justice reform advocacy group Dream Corps JUSTICE, which was founded by CNN commentator and former Obama administration official Van Jones.
According to Reed, a former inmate who served nearly 14 years in federal prison, the Trump administration “demonstrated leadership” on the issue, meaning President Joe Biden has no excuse not to continue his predecessor’s work.
“The previous administration, while they are not without criticism on some issues, one of the things that we cannot deny them on and it’s irrefutable, is that they have demonstrated leadership around criminal justice reform,” Reed told The Western Journal over the weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida.
“And so they have left literally — they’ve literally left this current administration without excuse,” he said. “If the Trump administration can do it, then anyone can do it.”
“We need a First-Step-and-a-Half Act. We need a First Step Act 2.0. We need to First Step Act 10.0. We need an updated version. We need a software update to our criminal justice system. And I think that the Trump administration left this current administration without excuse to do anything.”
Reed’s remarks echo comments made two years ago by Jones, who noted conservatives had taken the lead on criminal justice reform.
“I have to say something against my own interest here. Here’s the deal, the conservative movement in this country, unfortunately from my point of view, is now the leader on this issue of [criminal justice] reform,” the liberal commentator said at CPAC 2019.
“My problem is, I now have a conservative movement that for libertarian reasons, Christian conservative reasons, for fiscally conservative reasons is actually doing a great job on what should be my issue,” he added. “You are stealing my issue!”
Trump campaigned on his administration’s successful push to implement meaningful criminal justice reform, releasing an ad during last year’s Super Bowl that highlighted the story of a woman convicted in the mid-1990s of nonviolent involvement in drug trafficking and sentenced to life behind bars without the possibility of parole.
The woman, Alice Marie Johnson — whose sentence Trump commuted in June 2018 — was a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention last year.
“When President Trump heard about me — about the injustice of my story — he saw me as a person,” Johnson said in her RNC speech.
“He had compassion. And he acted. Free in body thanks to President Trump,” she added. “But free in mind thanks to the almighty God.”
According to freshman Republican Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, the appetite among conservatives for criminal justice reform is “new.”
“I think what it comes from is the understanding that all people have the ability for redemption,” he told The Western Journal at CPAC 2021. “Our criminal justice system is not something that’s just tucked away in urban neighborhoods that nobody really deals with.”
Donalds, who was also part of a panel discussion on the issue at CPAC, highlighted the importance of criminals paying their debt to society but then being allowed to re-enter society once they have done so.
“Frankly, a lot of American families have somebody that’s had to deal with this justice system,” he said. “We all want people to pay their debt to society. But it can’t be, frankly, a lifetime sentence where when you’re done, you don’t have the ability to become an American citizen again.”
A reformed system “actually lowers recidivism rates so people don’t go back and offend,” he said. “It makes our communities safer. It actually supports our police. And it makes sure that we have a conduit where once you’re done paying your debt, you come back and become an American citizen again and be a fruitful one — not just for yourself and for your family, but for our country.”
This doesn’t mean abandoning the concept of “law and order,” according to Donalds.
“I think it’s important to understand how you can be tough on crime, you can believe in law and order. I believe in law and order,” he said. “But at the same time, we also have to understand that our justice system has to be run efficiently, like we want every other government system to run efficiently.
“And if you actually pull back the layers of our criminal justice system, there is a lot of area in need of reform, a lot of area in need of modernization. And we should be doing that in that space like we want to do it in immigration, we want to do it in our budget and we want to do it in national defense.”
Neither Donalds nor Reed believes their work is finished. The former highlighted the need for probation reform, while Reed emphasized further “implementation” of the First Step Act.
According to Reed, conversations had in good faith are crucial to moving the issue forward.
“So long as you have people of goodwill continuing to come to the table, continuing to have conversations, continuing to say, ‘Look, we know that this is an issue,’ and so long as the issue is there, there is still hope to move that forward.”