Trump’s Potential Impact on Criminal Justice Reform

trump-with-policeJust like that, America voted for “Change” yet again. Those of us working in the social justice arena, working on our own form of change, are all checking pulses of the people around us, wondering “What does this mean?” The following are some initial thoughts, as someone who has confronted the criminal justice system during the Clinton, Bush, Obama, (and soon-to-be) Trump eras.

The Politics of Outsiderism

People get weary of a leader, and surely Americans have been blaming presidents for the weather ever since George Washington. The political change we just witnessed is, in many ways, not out of the norm. Reagan, Clinton, W., Obama, and Trump all ran as “outsiders” who will change the way we do business in Washington. All of them tapped into the present cultural discord. Even a president’s son managed to portray himself as an Outsider businessman from Texas. Only once in modern electoral history has a political party been able to stay in power beyond an 8-year presidency, and that was by elevating Vice President Bush, against a politician with very uncharismatic Dukakis- and it didn’t last long.

Just like that, it only took 25% of the voting age population to replace the images of their frustrations: Democrats, politicians, and a Black man. Eight years ago, people danced in the streets at the final overthrow of the American leader in the global power grab known as the War on Terror. Not everybody did, of course. But for those who danced, and who also rejoiced in the ultimate symbolism of a Black power trajectory: those people struggled to see any Bush policy that was reversed. Foreign occupations, extraordinary rendition, drone assassinations, domestic surveillance, deportations, the federal drug war, economic policy… these things were actually the status quo.

The Presidency and Criminal Justice Reform

Many Americans forget (or don’t know) that the police, prosecutors, judges, prisons, and laws controlling them are overwhelmingly local. There are infusions of federal money, such as when the Clinton Administration funded police officers in schools, and state prisons that agreed to reduce parole, but ultimately the federal government are followers rather than leaders. They follow the culture and the demands of the amplified people, and react to the media imagery (factual or not) and demagogues who fill the ears, hearts and minds of America. So does the Supreme Court.

When the Supreme Court is mentioned, it is generally as though they only made three rulings ever: Roe v. Wade, Obergefell v. Hodges (gay marriage) and Citizens United (a campaign finance ruling that 99% of Americans never heard of until the commentary afterwards). All of these laws are the status quo, as are many cases that set the floor for police powers to search, arrest and kill. Cases that control prosecutors hiding evidence (Brady) or the right to an attorney (Gideon) that is effective (Strickland) were all flimsy protections at best- yet massive improvements over the previous status quo. Are these issues also in jeopardy each time an overtly fascist President comes to power and may nominate someone who might rip up the principles of equal protection and due process? Perhaps, but Court nominees have proven to be a little harder to predict than advertised, and the status quo holds a lot of weight.

The Trump Administration will likely attempt to eliminate many of the social welfare programs that help keep people from desperately relying on criminal activity to survive. Money “saved” from affordable housing, for example, could then be shifted to prison subsidies (another form of a housing program). This will put him in a bind, however, as the majority of people receiving such support are poor and White. Of course, governments have historically done a masterful job of hurting that demographic and blaming Black and Latino people for it, and in this scenario the paying of poor White people in rural communities to cage the “scary” people of Color from the cities was a huge card to play. Sometimes, however, when you have already seen the movie, know all the dialogue, and know how it ends, you can disrupt that play from the beginning. This was the Clinton strategy. And now all the prisons are built, urban communities are gutted and occupied, and states are paying the bill on both ends. Local Republicans and Democrats have been increasingly seeing the light for about the past 12 years.

The Culture is the Key

Just like that, a wild and violent minority of terrorizers came out of the woodwork, feeling empowered to shout racist epithets to strangers, openly march as racist hate groups, and tear hijabs off of heads. We are indeed at a crossroads. Since the days of slavery and Native American genocide, this country has never elected a national leader who so easily incites violence and so blatantly disrespects the First Amendment. This wave of hate may in fact punch its way out. Fortunately, there is no impending Patriot Act and no part of America that needs invasion. When 9/11 happened, good people were so sucked into the “Us against Them” narrative that they didn’t even pause to question who “them” was. This indicates the fickleness of the masses, or the mob, or the crowd (depending on which leader you are quoting).

Trump will be calling police departments “fantastic” until he is blue in the face. No matter the evidence, he will be the Apologizer-in-Chief and possibly never throwing a single officer under the bus for violating someone’s rights. He will likely say things about how we are too soft, the laws are too weak, and we need to protect our police… all the same things we have heard from him. His entire platform of nationalism depends on the majority support of the two overwhelmingly White armed institutions: police departments and the military.

But will local people be unable to reign in and check the newly-emboldened racists who exist within these institutions? Will local police and prosecutors stand down in the face of a lynching (or similar acts)- as so many did for centuries? It is hard to imagine, particularly after many such District Attorneys were unelected in recent years. In many ways, the law has bent towards equitable justice under the weight of a movement. The era of social media has exposed new things to some people, but it is like suddenly seeing a 300 pound person and thinking they’re overweight- you might not know that person was 500 pounds last year.

As a man who has benefitted so much from foreign and immigrant labor, including his own wife, the prime battleground for racist policies will be on immigration. Families will be broken up, particularly if they are non-White. Racist militias will feel empowered, but may lose power if Trump sends massive federal troops in their stead. Trump also understands how corporations and the wealthy often exploit immigrants in ways they could not with Americans… and yet he will need to build some sort of “wall,” and need Mexico to make some sort of kickback. The double-speak and double-deal should be expected on a regular basis, as this is not unique to Trump. Obama needed to close Guantanamo and pull out of Afghanistan… and people are still waiting on that.

The pitbull that helped propel Trump to power won’t be so easy as a domesticated lap dog. The capitalists and materialists (whether Republicans, Independents, Democrats, and non-voters) are going to want the tension to go away so they can focus on increasing the comforts of their lives and families. Trump will have plenty of pressure to bring peace, and it will not all come from the social justice Movement. Perhaps only a small percentage of that pressure will be from us.

Why Be Partisan?

I realized long ago that states with all Democrats, and states with all Republicans, have the same inequitable criminal justice system that neglects children and adults until they desperately take survival actions. They have the same ruthless penalties for those who lack resources to explain, and those for whom the System employees have no compassion. Some states, and some municipalities, do things a little more or less humanely than the other, but the structures are the same. Neither party was ever promising an end to this cycle of neglect, desperation, punishment, and neglect.

Neither party ever made a commitment to universal suffrage, where every voting age American citizen can, and should, vote. With the billions of dollars spent on elections, they only inspire half of America to bother with it. With a margin of victory so close, they care not that six million people can’t vote: two million in cages, and four million under community supervision. This is not to discount the hard work of some individual politicians, but gains in that arena are still often the result of elected officials bending to the pressure of people who believe in voting rights for all, and overwhelmingly from people who believe that the cycle of neglect, desperation, punishment, and neglect can only be broken by encouraging people back into a unified community.

Both of these parties are in a state of division, blaming, and introspection. It is unclear what way they will go, and which internal cabals will emerge in their next generation. Meanwhile, we can take this opportunity to educate ourselves on the fallibility of leaders, and how close we really can be to internal combustion. The axiom that “people elect the leaders they deserve” feels sadly correct. We have not done enough popular education on racism, xenophobia, and sexism. We have not gotten out of our bubbles.

The Movement Continues

Every organizer and dedicated activist I know has doubled down on their resolve to bring unity, equality, and justice to the world. We knew what we were facing all along, and that certain elements did not simply fade away. The question is not whether a small group of committed individuals will carry the torch to the future of another small group of committed individuals. The question is not whether we can rally together and protect each other. These things will happen. The real question is whether we can articulate an America that captures the imagination of the masses, across race and class. It will not be due to one iconic leader, but we need leaders to inspire and keep us together. It will not be due to the funding of foundations that keep our non-profits afloat, but we need these organizations to serve as our bedrocks of the grassroots. What we need is a wave that includes artists, accountants, lawyers, carpenters, retail workers, coders, mechanics, athletes, children, cooks, and everyone creating a new America, the one that continually feels just beyond our reach. This, we can do.

If we do not increase our coalition of sustainable communities built on love, we may find other things that can happen, as Fela says: “Just like that.”


About Bruce Reilly

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender in New Orleans, LA. He is a graduate of Tulane Law School and author of NewJack's Guide to the Big House. Much of his writing can be found on
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