Not long after Jeff Sessions was sworn in as Attorney General, President Trump signed three executive orders aimed at reducing crime in America. Trump campaigned hard on this issue and repeatedly claimed that crime in the United States was out of control and that tough minimum mandatory sentences needed to be implemented. Nonetheless, Trump did go after Hillary Clinton for describing criminals as “super predators.” He called Hillary’s characterization of these people abhorrent and uncalled for during her husband’s implementation of major sentences Nonetheless, the signing of these orders, signal a direction that President Trump will be implementing and funding mass prosecutions.
The first order is the creation of a task force on crime reduction and public safety. Specifically, it calls for “a commitment to enforcing the law and developing policies that comprehensively address illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime.” The second order is aimed at drug cartels and calls for increasing intelligence sharing between federal and state authorities. The third order directs the Department of Justice to use all laws possible to prosecute those who commit crimes against any law enforcement officer.
German Lopez, journalist and writer for Vox, goes into great detail about what is come of these orders. On the one hand, the orders clearly point to a “hint that these task forces could lead to a new push for the types of ‘tough on crime’ policies Trump campaigned on. However, Mr. Lopez makes an excellent point that even if President Trump follows through on getting “tough on crime,” it is not likely to have a major impact. This is because President Trump’s power is limited to that of the Federal government. As Mr. Lopez points out, President Trump does not control State prosecutions and State prosecutions account for most of the prison population. In other words, “In the US, federal prisons house only about 13 percent of the overall prison population.”
Another limitation on the power of President Trump and his executive orders, is the fact that the United States Supreme Court has struck down certain minimum mandatory sentences. For example, the Department of Justice can no longer seek long sentences for certain drug crimes committed with firearms. Those sentences have been ruled unconstitutional. Thus, the Justice Department is letting State prosecutors take the lead on those crimes. Also, unlike the 80’s and 90s, sentencing guidelines are now advisory and not mandatory for United States District Judges to follow. This again is a contrast to some State prosecutions. In Florida, for example, there are sentencing guidelines. However, those guidelines only dictate the minimum sentence that the Judge must impose. There is no limit on the Judge sentencing a defendant to the statutory maximum on a case. In fact, the Judge does not even have to detail why he/she is imposing the maximum allowable by law and going far above the minimum.
We shall see where these executive orders take us. From the start, it is difficult to change an entire bureaucracy overnight. In addition, many lawmakers have realized that mass incarceration does not work and the amount of money required for it is enormous. For my two cents, I don’t believe that mass incarceration is coming back anytime soon.
Mr. Lopez writes that President Trump is not correct about crime being at an all-time high. In fact, he writes that the crime rate in 2015 was less than half of what it was at several periods in the 1970’s and 1980’s.