Based on his sweeping Super Tuesday victories, Donald Trump is one giant leap closer to becoming the GOP’s presidential nominee. But the candidate has yet to detail policy platforms for a wide range of topics, including criminal justice.
Last August, the Washington Post’s Radley Balko compiled a comprehensive roundup of candidates’ criminal justice reform proposals and wrote that Trump’s campaign website made no mention of the issue space at all. Fast forward to today, and little has changed.
The only two discussions of criminal justice reform on Trump’s site are framed in relation to Second Amendment rights and his tough stance on immigration.
Trump wants to expand programs similar to Project Exile — which sends violent felons who use guns in Richmond, Virginia to prison for five years without the chance of parole — in other parts of the country. He plans to “empower law-abiding gun owners to defend themselves” because “[law] enforcement is great, they do a tremendous job, but they can’t be everywhere all of the time.”
He also favors the mass incarceration of undocumented immigrants. His website proposes automatic prison time — instead of “catch and release” — for undocumented immigrants who are caught crossing the border, as well as the strict enforcement of criminal penalties against people who overstay their visas. And he wants ICE officials to partner with local law enforcement to raid violent street gangs, find “illegal aliens in gangs,” and imprison and deport them.
Trump has not explicitly addressed the issues that bipartisan criminal justice advocates are vocal about, including sentencing reform, juvenile justice, solitary confinement, the death penalty, and expanding rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism.
Nonetheless, based on his recent — and past — comments about policing and the corrections system, here’s what criminal justice could conceivably look like under President Trump:
Long before the start of his campaign, Trump was a fierce advocate for “tough on crime” policing. Although the crime rate has dropped significantly for decades, Trump has pledged to give officers more leeway to “regain control of this crime wave and killing wave.”
Last August, Trump told the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “In terms of our cities and in terms of our violent offenses, we have to get a lot tougher. Because if you look at what’s going on with Baltimore and with places like Chicago…I know the chief of police. These are fantastic people. They have to be allowed to do their job.”
On Meet the Press, he acknowledged the “massive crisis” of unarmed black people being shot by cops, saying “horrible mistakes are made.” But he also wants to increase the “strength and power” of law enforcement. During a GOP debate in January, Trump concluded that “police are the most mistreated people in this country.”
Trump has blamed blacks and Hispanics for “the overwhelming amount of violent crime.”
Sentencing reform, including the reduction of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses, has been a hallmark of bipartisan legislation, however there is no indication that Trump will carry that torch.
In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, Trump actually slammed sentence reduction and explained that judges allow criminals back into society too often.
“Criminals are often returned to society because of forgiving judges. This has to stop. We need to hold judges more accountable, and the best way to make that happen is to elect them,” he wrote. “The next time you hear someone saying there are too many people in prison, ask them how many thugs they’re willing to relocate to their neighborhood. The answer: None.”
In November, when asked if he’s rethought his position, Trump simply answered “No.”
“I’m tough on crime,” he told MSNBC. “I’m a believer in being tougher on crime — I really am…You look at what’s going on in the inner cities right now, it’s unbelievable. [You] go to places like Chicago — and it’s all in one little section — but boy it’s like the Wild West.”
Over the past few decades, Trump has flip flopped on the issue of marijuana legalization.
In the 1990s, he said that winning the so-called War on Drugs requires legalization and proposed that profits from a regulated drug trade should go to drug education.
He has since pivoted to say that drug legalization should be studied, although “it’s not something [he’d] be willing to do right now.” He’s also explained that legalization should be left up to states.
Trump told the Morning Joe hosts that a kid who’s caught with marijuana shouldn’t be thrown in jail, but dealers “have to be looked at strongly.”
With the matter of legalization up in the air, Trump has made it clear that his plan to build a wall along the border will keep drugs from coming into the country. He’s famously said that Mexicans coming into the U.S. are “drug dealers” who have to be kept out. Linking the heroin epidemic in New Hampshire to illegal drug trades across the border, he also said it is necessary to invest in drug treatment facilities.
Besides his comment about not throwing a kid in jail for marijuana, Trump’s most vocal stance on juvenile justice has been in the context of the Central Park 5.
The group of five teenagers were wrongfully convicted of raping and beating a white female jogger at a time when the superpredator myth about dangerous black juveniles was gaining steam. While the group had nothing to do with the actual crime, they were tricked into making false confessions and sentenced to decades behind bars.
At the time, Trump penned an op-ed calling for the teenagers to be put to death.
“I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” he wrote. “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”
When New York admitted that grave mistakes were made and agreed to a $40 million settlement in 2014, Trump penned another opinion piece slamming the “disgraceful” decision.
“Settling doesn’t mean innocence, but it indicates incompetence on several levels,” he wrote. “Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
Under Trump’s leadership, people will still be sentenced to die for capital offenses. In the America We Deserve, Trump had a lot to say about “criminals who pray on innocent people,” whom he also compared to Hitler:
Would it have been civilized to put Hitler in prison? No-it would have been an affront to civilization. The same is true of criminals who prey on innocent people. They have declared war on civilization. I don’t care if the victim is a CEO or a floor sweeper. 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.
While support for capital punishment has plummeted in recent years, Trump is still a staunch proponent of it. Back in December, he announced that anyone who kills a police officer will be sentenced to die. His statement earned an endorsement from the New England Police Benevolent Association, an officer union that boasts 5,000 members.