Donald Trump: The Champion of Criminal Justice Reform?

By Tamar Alexanian
Associate Editor, Vol. 25

On October 25, 2019, the 45th President of our great, fair, and just nation received the Bipartisan Justice Award at the 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum, an event organized by the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center.[1] The Justice Center gave Trump this award for signing the First Step Act, a piece of criminal justice reform legislation that allowed for the early release of some nonviolent federal inmates. The Act only applies to imprisoned individuals in the federal criminal justice system, about 181,000 total.[2] In total, there are 2.1 million individuals in the U.S. jail and prison system.[3]

Our criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration.[4] Today, more people are in prison for drug offenses than the total number of people who were incarcerated in 1980.[5] And we cannot talk about the criminal justice system without also discussing race: people of color make up 67 percent of the prison population but only make up 37 percent of the United States population.[6] One in three black men and one in six Latino men will be imprisoned during their lifetime; in contrast, only one in 17 white men will.[7]

Considering this very broken system, the Act is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. The list of organizations and supporters for the First Step Act was immense. The First Step Act website touts support from 32 senatorial co-sponsors, 203 advocacy organizations, 70 law enforcement organizations, 69 celebrity figures, and 25 editorial board newspapers.[8]

The Act has given judges much-needed discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing, has ended solitary confinement for juveniles, and has expanded opportunities for incarcerated individuals to improve themselves, stay connected to their communities, and successfully transition back into society.[9] As of August 2019, over 3,000 people had been released from prison early by qualifying for “good time” credits under the Act. Another 1,700 individuals have had their sentences reduced due to changes in drug offense sentencing.[10]

However, while we celebrate the Act, there is something unsettling about recognizing the President who signed the Act into effect. Though Trump did sign the First Step Act, he has also been blatantly racist and unjust throughout his presidency. As a quick reminder, the non-exhaustive list of injustices includes:

  • In 1989, five black and Latino teenage boys were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. During the highly publicized hearing, Trump took out full page ads in four major New York newspapers that said, “Bring back the death penalty.” Even though the men were exonerated with DNA evidence in 2002, Trump still suggested that the men were guilty as recently as July 2019.[11]
  • In 2016, Trump suggested that a judge could not be impartial because of his Mexican heritage. Trump told CNN, “He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico. The answer is, he is giving us very unfair rulings – rulings that people can’t even believe.”[12] The judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was born in Indiana.[13]
  • In 2015, Trump responded to a question regarding Mexican immigrants by saying, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”[14]
  • On October 8, 2018, President Trump defended stop-and-frisk policies that have been ruled unconstitutional. He further encouraged the city of Chicago to “try to change the terrible deal the city of Chicago entered into with ACLU” to track the use of stop and frisk.[15]
  • In January of 2018, President Trump was discussing immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries in a new immigration package. To several U.S. Senators, the President said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
  • In his 2002 book, The America We Deserve, Trump wrote, “A life is a life, and if you criminally take an innocent life, you’d better be prepared to forfeit your own. My only complaint is that lethal injection is too comfortable a way to go.”[16]

In light of Trump’s long history of inappropriate and uneducated comments about the criminal justice system, it seems like someone else in this country might have been a better pick for the Bipartisan Justice Award.

[1] Charles M. Blow, Trump’s Black College Spectacle, The New York Times (October 27, 2019),

[2] Id.

[3] German Lopez, The First Step Act, Explained, Vox (February 5, 2019, 9:42 PM),

[4] The Facts: Criminal Justice Facts,, (last visited November 3, 2019).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] First Step Act Sponsors and Partners, #FirstStepAct, (last visited November 3, 2019).

[9] First Step Act Already Shows Success, American Bar Association (August 15, 2019),

[10] Id.

[11] Aaron Rupar, Trump Still Refuses to Admit He Was Wrong About The Central Park 5, Vox (June 18, 2019, 5:40 PM),

[12] Z. Byron Wolf, Trump’s Attacks on Judge Curiel Are Still Jarring To Read, CNN Politics (February 27, 2018, 8:24 PM),

[13] Id.

[14] Gregory Korte & Alan Gomez, Trump Ramps Up Rhetoric on Undocumented Immigrants: ‘These Aren’t People. These Are Animals”, USA Today (May 16, 2018, 6:13 PM),

[15] Carl Takei, President Trump, Stop and Frisk Is Both Unconstitutional and Innefective, ACLU (October 9, 2018, 4:00 PM),

[16] John A. Tures, Trump Was Tougher on Crime in His 2000 Book Than Biden Was in 1994, Observer (June 4, 2019, 8:00 AM),