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DEBRA J. SAUNDERS: Trump’s own criminal justice reform

Updated February 29, 2020 - 10:26 am

For decades, a small cadre of reformers pushed whichever president occupied the Oval Office to use his pardon power more frequently and put a lid on draconian federal sentences that put low- and midlevel offenders away for decades, even life.

The problem they face on the week President Donald Trump issued pardons and commutations to 11 nonviolent offenders is that they got their wish — except for the Trump part.

It’s odd, because in his fashion, Trump relates to the prison community, as was clear when he presided Thursday over a graduation ceremony for 29 ex-offenders who participated in the Hope for Prisoners program in Las Vegas.

He didn’t speak down to the graduates, as politicians have been known to do. Trump spoke as if they were in the same boat: “To every returning citizen here today, I know that there are some in our society who want to tell you what you can’t do. They’re going to tell you what you can’t do. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to be here.”

Trump has a healthy distrust of federal prosecutors. Of course, most want to lock up bad guys to protect the public, for which voters should be grateful. But they often do so with a ruthlessness that is chilling.

They’ve been known to put away low-level, nonviolent drug offenders for decades, even life without parole, while giving deals to kingpins who know how to game the system. I’ve talked to career prosecutors who defended locking up nonviolent drug offenders for life — because bad laws said they could.

No doubt Trump’s distrust of the criminal justice system has been stoked by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which, after more than two years, found no coordination between the Kremlin and Trump Tower. The investigation dragged on far beyond the point when Mueller and company should have realized they didn’t have the goods they sought.

It was deliciously ironic to hear former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe complain after he learned the government would not charge him for making inaccurate statements to the FBI, “It is an absolute disgrace that they took two years and put my family through this experience for two years before they finally drew the obvious conclusion and one they could have drawn a long, long time ago.”

If only Mueller’s team thought two years was too long for the country to wait for its probe to end.

A true criminal justice reformer would call for an end to criminalizing politics and disagreements. Trump embraces criminal justice reform, then grins at rallies when his base chants, “Lock her up.”

The New York Times reported that all 11 Trump pardon recipients had connections with Trump or Fox News. Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice.” Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik had friends on Fox News. The family of Texas businessman Paul Pogue had contributed more than $200,000 to re-elect Trump.

I perused the list and didn’t see any miscarriage of justice, per se. It’s refreshing to see a president who is not afraid to recognize people who have served their time and turned their lives around or to reduce draconian sentences for nonviolent offenders. This is what criminal justice reformers have wanted for decades.

But there’s no path for 14,000 applicants who have asked for clemency the old-fashioned way. And I can’t shake the feeling that it’s more about Trump and his feelings and who he likes than justice.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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