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Drug sentences and Donald Trump: Is reform even possible?

A bipartisan bill to restore sanity to sentencing might not clear the White House, but it's still reason for hope


Amanda Marcotte
September 22, 2017 8:59AM (UTC)

Despite scorching hot takes declaring Donald Trump to be a fearless, maverick independent, the reality is that the first orange president has worked in lockste>Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, announced Tuesday that they intend to reintroduce the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, meant to curtail the problem of people serving lengthy federal prison sentences for low level offenses.

The previous iteration of this bill was a minor miracle, a genuinely bipartisan effort. It's an issue that's typically touted heavily by Democrats, who passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 with some Republican support, but has gotten increasing amounts of traction on the GOP side of aisle. The 2015 version of this bill, for instance, had Republican senators like Lindsey Graham, John Cornyn and Mike Lee on board, and even got public support from House Speaker Paul Ryan.

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But that bill collapsed, in part because many Republicans opposed it and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn't even let the Senate vote on it. McConnell's reasoning was nakedly political. To be blunt, the bill is meant to reduce racial disparities in sentencing. No doubt McConnell was right to believe the same Republican base that hungrily eats up the racist fear-mongering dished out by Trump would revolt to see Republicans pass a bill largely intended to address racism in the justice system

With Trump in office and Jeff Sessions, who former Alabama senator who vigorously opposed the bill, heading the Justice Department, the tensions between race-baiting Republicans and Grassley's criminal justice reform coalition aren't going away anytime soon. Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project told Salon, however, that Grassley has "been steadfast, once he got on board" with this bill.

“Social conservatives who are really influenced by their faith," she suggested, have increasingly been drawn toward this issue in recent years. This group, she said, sees that handing down "long sentences for what are relatively low level offenses, particularly for drugs, is not just, it’s not fair, and it’s causing great harm to families."

A more cynical person might say that the rise of the opioid epidemic — which is perceived as a problem affecting predominantly white communities perhaps more than black communities — may have softened Republican hearts to the idea that low-level drug offenders shouldn't face decades of prison time. But regardless of how these Republicans got on board, they are now looking at the issue through a rational lens — which puts them at odds with the Trumper, "law-and-order" wing of the party.

As a chart from the Sentencing Project makes clear, the number of people imprisoned for drug offenses has skyrocketed over the past few decades. 

people-in-prisons-and-jails-for-drug-offenses-1980-2015

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Many researchers also believe these thousands of incarcerated people ultimately contribute to the violent crime problem as well. People who serve long sentences for low-level offenses struggle to find legal work afterwards, which in turn can lead to committing more serious crimes.

Trump and his supporters, however, aren't really interested in viewing criminal justice through the lens of public safety and well-being, nor in making the best use of government resources. Trump's recent pardon of sadistic former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose racist actions and criminal misdeeds are too numerous to be summarized here, makes clear that the Trumpian interest in "law and order" has a strong current of cruelty.

Gotsch acknowledged that the combination of Trump in the White House and Sessions at the Department of Justice presented real obstacles for this bill becoming law. But "there’s important symbolism in Congress working in a bipartisan nature," she said, "particularly on this issue.”

For one thing, a bipartisan bill on the national level could signal to state legislators and governors, who often "fear being perceived as soft on crime," Gotsch said, that there's more support for introducing similar bills in state legislatures. Considering that most incarcerated people are in state prisons, not federal prisons, reform on the state level is probably even more necessary.

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Still, as Gotsch pointed out, the federal system is unique: "Half the people serving life without parole in the federal prison system are there for a drug offense," she said, a far larger proportion than in state prisons. Prison Policy Initiative has a chart with the breakdown:

pie2016_drugs

Taking steps to reduce federal sentences for low-level drug offenses, in other words, could also significantly reduce the federal prison population. While this bill doesn't nearly go far enough, according to many advocates, it's a step in the right direction. Among other things, it would make retroactive some parts of the 2010 sentencing law that reduced sentences for possession of crack cocaine. (Which had previously been treated far more harshly than possession of powdered cocaine, even though the two drugs are chemically identical.)

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It's impossible to imagine Trump, whose entire campaign was based on race-baiting, endorsing a bill that's so strongly associated with the racial justice movement. But by bringing it back again and forcing renewed discussion and debate on this issue, Grassley and Durbin are helping lay groundwork for a time when Democrats hold at least some congressional power, and this badly needed bipartisan reform legislation will have a real shot at passing.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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