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Trump Secures The Higher Ground On Criminal Justice Issues in 2020 Campaign

Democratic candidates are being forced to disavow criminal justice policies they once championed

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Al Sharpton, center, with demonstrators during a silent march to end the "stop-and-frisk" program in New York. During the Bloomberg administration, civil rights groups went to court to end the NYPD's use of a tactic known as "stop and frisk," which involved detaining, questioning and sometimes searching people deemed suspicious by officers. VOA

Bloomberg is the latest Democratic candidate forced to reckon with a criminal justice policy record that critics view as too punitive to minorities.

As he prepared to announce his candidacy for president on Sunday, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a page from an old political playbook.

Appearing in a black church in the city’s Brooklyn borough last week, the multi-billionaire media mogul apologized for long pushing a now-defunct policing tactic that had disproportionately targeted African American and Hispanic residents.

Known as “stop and frisk,” the controversial policy, imposed between 2003 and 2013, allowed New York City police to stop, temporarily detain, and search anyone suspected of carrying weapons and other contraband.

“I was wrong,” Bloomberg declared to the congregation. To those who had been wronged by the policy, he said, “I apologize.”

Criminal justice policy records

Former Vice President Joe Biden has been criticized for backing a 1994 crime bill that helped trigger a federal prison population explosion, while South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has faced questions over policing tactics in his hometown.

Others, including Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, have had to justify their law enforcement policies as a former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and a California prosecutor, respectively.

That Democrats are under scrutiny over criminal justice issues is unusual. Historically, Democratic presidential candidates ran on platforms of civil rights and criminal justice reform while Republicans campaigned as tough law-and-order candidates, according to criminal justice experts.

Donald Trump on criminal justice
President Donald Trump speaks at the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration in the East Room of the White House in Washington. VOA

But as the 2020 campaign enters the crucial primary phase, Democratic candidates are being forced to disavow criminal justice policies they once championed, while Republican President Donald Trump – who hardly discussed criminal justice in 2016 – is touting himself as a leading reform candidate.

Trump says he can make that claim because he signed into law a sweeping piece of legislation known as the First Step Act last December. The legislation, which has released or reduced the prison sentences of thousands of inmates convicted of drug offenses, has earned Trump praise from many African Americans.

“It’s sort of a switch in what people thought was the standard left-right divide,” said Noah Weinrich of Heritage Action for America, a conservative grassroots organization.

So what happened?

The short answer is the country has changed. The 1994 Crime Bill now under attack from liberals and African Americans was enacted during the Clinton administration, near the height of a violent crime epidemic in the country when heavy-handed policies enjoyed broad public support.

But as crime has steadily declined over the past two decades to historically low levels, support for those measures has eroded and politicians on both sides of the aisle have increasingly embraced overhaul proposals.

Behind the 1994 Crime Bill

Biden helped craft the legislation when he was a U.S. senator and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and now is taking heat for the legislation’s more onerous side effects.

“Today, crime and murder rates are at historic lows and American communities are safer than they have been in generations,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, acting director of the Justice Program at New York University’s Brennan Center. “That’s significant because that allows the bipartisan conversations about how to best reduce the number of people who have been incarcerated.”

To be sure, criminal justice reform is not among the most pressing concerns for voters who care more about issues such as health care, immigration and jobs, according to polling.

Bill Clinton, Al Gore Demand Criminal Justice
President Bill Clinton signs the $30 billion crime bill during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. Looking on, from left: Vice President Al Gore; House Majority Whip David Bonior of Mich.; Stephen Sposato, whose wife was killed by a gunman invaded the San Francisco law firm where she worked; Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M. and Marc Klass, whose daughter Polly was kidnapped and killed. VOA

But public support for measures, such as eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, has been on an upswing in recent years. That has prompted not only the large field of Democratic candidates but also the Republican president to campaign on criminal justice issues. Today, instead of incarceration, politicians increasingly talk about rehabilitation and redemption.

“Now we’re at a point in the country where we’re looking at our criminal justice system and saying maybe sentencing is what we need to think about and how do we best get our nonviolent criminals back into being productive members of society,” veteran Republican strategist David Avella said.

Last December, growing bipartisanship for criminal justice reform culminated in the enactment of the First Step Act.

Considered the most sweeping overhaul in a generation, the First Step Act allows for the early release of some nonviolent offenders, while providing inmates with in-prison job training to ease their reintegration into society and reduce recidivism rates. To date, more than 3,000 prisoners have been released and nearly 1,700 others have received sentence reductions under the program.

“Last year we brought the whole country together to achieve a truly momentous milestone,” Trump said last month at the historically black Benedict College in South Carolina, where he received an award for signing into law the First Step Act. “They said it couldn’t be done.”

Trump was an unlikely champion of the bill. When he first ran for president in 2016, he was seen as an obstacle to reform.

While his platform was notably silent on the issue, he consistently pushed for tough-on-crime policies over the decades, advocating lengthy sentences for violent offenders and effusing about New York City’s stop-and-frisk policies.

Then, after he was elected in 2016, Trump appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a senior White House adviser. Given a broad policy platform, Kushner zeroed in on an issue that he said was very close to his heart: prison reform.

Kushner’s father imprisoned

His father, real estate developer Charles Kushner, spent 14 months in a federal prison in the 2000s for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion and witness tampering. Jared Kushner later called his father’s incarceration “obviously unjust.”

“When I had my personal experience, I wish that there was somebody who was in my office in the White House, who cared about this issue as much as I do, and if they’d been focused on it in making a difference, perhaps that would have made an impact on a lot of people who I came to meet and care about,” he told CNN’s Van Jones, a prominent African American advocate of the First Step Act, last year.

Kusner Brafman on Criminal Justice
Charles Kushner, left, walks to the U.S. District Courthouse with his lawyers Benjamin Brafman, right, and Alfred C. DeCotiis, center, in Newark, N.J. Kushner is expected to plead guilty to charges stemming from a witness tampering scheme. VOA

Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy organization that lobbied for the legislation, said Kushner played an indispensable role in championing the bill and that Trump deserves credit for signing it into law.

“No one would have thought four years ago or three years ago that President Trump would have signed a law like that,” Ring said. “Everyone would have been skeptical that he would have supported any reform. So because he did it, I see no reason not to celebrate that.”

But Democratic candidates were in no mood to celebrate Trump’s action. They have denounced other Trump administration policy decisions that they say have set back years of progress on criminal justice. These include the Justice Department’s recent decision to resume federal executions.

ALSO READ: Here’s How Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Impacts The World

“I find it hypocritical of him to tout whatever advances have been made in the First Step Act given his history,” Democratic candidate Harris said at the Bipartisan Justice Center event after Trump received the award.

Harris, who had initially opposed the First Step Act for not going far enough to address criminal justice reform before voting for it, has faced criticism for not embracing criminal justice reform when she was San Francisco’s top prosecutor and later California’s attorney general. (VOA)

Next Story

Economy to Overcome Other Issues in 2020, says Trump

President Donald Trump is hoping that simple message in 2020 will help foil his eventual Democratic Party challenger. 

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President Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump attends a Keep America Great Rally at the Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, U.S. VOA

“It’s the economy, stupid” has been a catchphrase of U.S. presidential politics since the 1992 campaign, when Bill Clinton unseated incumbent George H.W. Bush. Nearly three decades later, U.S. President Donald Trump is hoping that simple message in 2020 will help foil his eventual Democratic Party challenger.

Trump — in tweets, at political rallies and in remarks to reporters — constantly emphasizes the performance of the U.S. economy, stock market surges, low unemployment rates and his tax cuts to boast he is doing a great job as president.

Economists and political analysts are divided on whether that message will enable the incumbent to stay in office beyond January 2021.

Culture war, partisan split

Ever since Clinton, “we’ve all kind of assumed that should be true. And I think for the most part, it is,” said Ryan McMaken, senior editor and economist at the Mises Institute, a politics and economics research group in Alabama. He cautioned, though, that Trump finds himself on one side of a culture war that his predecessors did not have to confront, as well as a deep partisan divide on consumer confidence.

Walmart Supercentre
Balo Balogun labels items in preparation for a holiday sale at a Walmart Supercenter, in Las Vegas. Black Friday once again kicks off the start of the holiday shopping season. But it will be the shortest season since 2013 because of Thanksgiving falling on the fourth Thursday in November, the latest possible date it can be. VOA

Policy analyst James Pethokoukis at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, a public policy research group, also is cautious about the economy prevailing over all other issues.

“Just having a strong economy is not going to guarantee you re-election,” he said. “People often point back to the 2000 election, which occurred after a decade of tremendous economic growth any way you want to measure it — gross domestic product, jobs and wage growth. And yet, [Clinton’s vice president] Al Gore still lost that election to George W. Bush.”

McMaken questioned whether voters in key swing states — such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio — who cast ballots for Trump in 2016 were experiencing enough of the touted economic performance to vote again for the president.

Overall, however, “it’s not a bad economy to run on if you’re Donald Trump,” said Pethokoukis.

Trump, said to have concerns about the direction of the economy ahead of next November’s election, will likely push for more tax cuts, passage of a renegotiated North American trade pact and continued pressure on the country’s central banking system, the Federal Reserve, to lower interest rates.

A LB Steel LLC's employee manufactures a component
A LB Steel LLC’s employee manufactures a component for new Amtrak Acela trains built in partnership with Alstom in Harvey, Illinois, U.S. VOA

Trouble ahead?

There are rumblings of economic storm clouds on the horizon. The impact can be seen in Trump’s trade war with China, which has hurt U.S. farmers and raised prices for consumer goods. It’s also reflected in the Institute for Supply Management’s Manufacturing Index, an underperforming U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index and a ballooning record national debt, in addition to the worrying level of money owed to creditors by middle-class Americans.

“We’ve actually been in a sort of a manufacturing recession, seen a shrinkage of factory jobs, the exact kinds of jobs that I’m sure that people voting for the president thought would be a lot better now,” said Pethokoukis.

So far, none of this has prompted a major stock market correction.

“There seems to be a lot of adaptations in the markets to Trump’s America. That may work to his advantage,” said the Mises Institute’s McMaken.

Analysts note a lack of emphasis on economic platforms so far by the leading Democratic U.S. presidential candidates seeking to oust Trump next year.

But such a platform is likely to be touted when the opposition party holds its convention next July in Milwaukee and picks its campaign ticket. Pethokoukis suggested the Democratic Party should devise a plan with a goal to boost American worker productivity, which has flatlined for years.

The great divide

McMaken pointed out that the widening chasm between the well-off and those struggling economically in the United States makes Trump vulnerable — something emphasized by left-leaning Democratic presidential contenders such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Donald Trump says the economy isn't doing well
Tents and tarps erected by homeless people are shown along sidewalks and streets in the skid row area of downtown Los Angeles, California, U.S. VOA

“On the ground level, I would say just in general, the economy isn’t doing as well,” concluded McMaken.

ALSO READ: Greed For Power May Demolish The Democracy

Amid an impeachment drive by the Democrats, Trump is repeatedly hammering on a specific message to those questioning his suitability for office while being impressed with the performance of their pension accounts during his presidency.

“Love me or hate me, you’ve got to vote for me,” Trump said at a rally in New Hampshire in August, warning that Americans’ investments portfolios would go “down the tubes” if he lost next year’s election. (VOA)