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Donald Trump Challenging Criminal Justice Reform Efforts

Trump’s tough-on-crime rhetoric is at odds with bipartisan momentum to reform a criminal justice system.
Image: Donald Trump
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Fairfield , Connecticut, on August 13, 2016.MICHELLE MCLOUGHLIN / Reuters

Donald Trump heads to a suburb of Milwaukee Tuesday evening where the location and the timing of his event is significant. Two days after parts of that city was set ablaze after an officer shot and killed an armed suspect, Trump was reinforcing his commitment to law enforcement and cracking down on “bad dudes.”

"Without law and order, you have a problem. And we need strong, swift and very fair law and order," Trump told local CBS affiliate WKBT in an interview Tuesday.

While Trump’s tough-on-crime rhetoric offers comfort to some in his mostly white, working class base when tensions between law enforcement and African Americans are strained, it is also at odds with bipartisan momentum to reform a criminal justice system that has nearly 200,000 Americans locked up in the federal system (not including state prisons).

House Speaker Paul Ryan is supportive of those reforms and said he anticipates that the House would bring up legislation, some of which would alter mandatory minimum sentences and reduce the disparity between crack and cocaine sentencing, this September.

But Mark Holden, the Chairman of the Board of Koch-backed political group Freedom Partners which has been advocating on behalf of reform, says Trump’s "law and order" rhetoric is not helpful.

“The way Mr. Trump talks about it as far as the crime wave isn’t productive and isn’t always accurate,” Holden said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Monday.

Holden has been working with a coalition of groups, including the Obama administration, on a series of changes to the criminal justice system. And the effort has been gaining bipartisan momentum in the past two years at the federal level.

But Trump has revived the kind of tough-on-crime rhetoric of 1990s. Passage of the the 1994 crime bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, resulted in a dramatic increase of incarcerations.

In the biggest stage of his campaign to date, Trump unexpectedly opened his convention speech -- then spent more than ten minutes -- on the issue of “law and order,” saying under a Trump presidency, “safety would be restored.”

“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” Trump said at his nominating speech at the Republican Convention in Cleveland.

And at a rally in Kissimmee, Florida earlier this month, Trump slammed President Obama’s commutations of sentences of drug offenders.

“Some of these people are bad dudes,” he said. “These are people out walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks.”

Trump’s description of crime in the U.S. is unique at a time when overall violent crime is down, according to the FBI statistics. And it’s out of tune of even many security-focused members of his own party.

Trump’s safety focused speech outside of Milwaukee Tuesday is in GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s congressional district. Sensenbrenner has been a proponent of criminal justice reform, sponsoring one of the bills to be considered with Democrat Rep. Bobby Scott.

Sensenbrenner, who has not endorsed Trump, will not attend the event in his district.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric, leaders in criminal justice reform efforts say that his divisive language is not having a practical impact yet on lawmakers’ will to move forward this year, even ahead of Election Day.

Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, said that the issue is bigger than Trump.

“It’s having zero impact, and I don’t think it’s because of the political environment. It’s because one of three adults have a criminal record,” Harris said. “I think it would be difficult to turn the American people away from support for these reforms.”

Trump hasn’t weighed in on specific proposal yet, but if you can judge a candidate’s positions by that of his supporters, then the prospects of Trump backing reform efforts are minimal.

Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Jeff Session of Alabama are the most vocal opponents of reform efforts.