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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/29/17

How the criminal-justice system is unjust under Trump

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Let me make this clear: it's not all Trump. America's criminal-justice system has been systemically unjust for as long as anyone can remember. Advances we've made toward improvement could be undone under the Trump administration. During Trump, state and local governments will have to do their best to keep their eyes on the goal of criminal-justice reform. If not, post-Trump, voters and lawmakers will have to make a concerted effort to heal the nation.

It's painful to watch this story play out. But you and I probably need a little pain to help us wake up. Imagine you're born into a poor family in a small town, Anywhere, USA. As you're growing up, your parents try to set aside money for a college fund, but everyday expenses keep chipping away at it. Then, the Great Recession of 2008 hits and anything they've set aside goes out the window.

What's more, your dad works in a coal mine where he feels the wages aren't what they should be, and then, the final straw, he gets laid off because Obama puts an ax to the coal industry. He's steaming mad because he can't find a new job and the country's not working for him when all he's done his whole life is work for it.

You're about to graduate from high school and you're contemplating college. As the 2016 election looms, your mom and dad vow to vote for Trump because he'll fight for coal jobs. Bernie or Hillary are promising to send their child to college for free, but they're incensed about their current economic plight and don't have a ton of thought for the future. This makes you incredibly angry, but you have no idea how to deal with your anger properly. Let's just say the people around you aren't good role models, and society doesn't encourage you to express your emotions the right way.

Trump gets elected, but your dad doesn't get his job back. Even the top coal boss, Robert Murray, said Trump won't bring back jobs. You're stuck. The price of college is too high, you don't even want to go anyhow, it's just a bunch of know-it-alls, so-called 'experts' telling you how to live your life. You don't know the correlation between a bachelor's degree and salary potential: with a degree, you'll earn an average of $1 million more than you will with a high school diploma.

You also don't know the correlation between poverty and incarceration. Regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender, people who go to prison earn 41% less than those who don't. Your decision to skip college makes you statistically more likely to end up in prison. But that's not the only thing pushing you toward the jail cell.

You're angry, but instead of getting violent, you start smoking pot. You figure it's harmless and you're not mad when you're on it. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says marijuana is only "slightly less awful" than heroin, ignoring the fact that 13,000 people died of heroin overdoses in 2015, while no one died of a marijuana overdose. You live in a red state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, a state that views prison as the primary solution to the 'marijuana problem', a view Trump and Sessions stand behind. What's more, Trump is bringing back private prisons, which thrive on a lack of sentencing reform. A private-prison company lobbies to make penalties and mandatory minimums for marijuana possession even stricter than they already are. A lot of money changes hands. It works. Then, one night, you're busted for selling paraphernalia to a friend and you find yourself facing three to five years of federal prison time.

You've become a statistic, one of the many that point to the need for sentencing reform:

-- America has the highest prison population in the world, over 2.2 million inmates compared to China's 1.6 million

-- Drug-related offenses are responsible for 46% of federal incarcerations, and less than 50% of offenders have a history of violence

-- Federal prisons are 25% over capacity and consume 25% of the Justice Department's budget

-- Sentencing reform could save the government $4 billion in the first 10 years, money that could go toward creating jobs and developing new technology

During Obama, both the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 were moves to reduce the number of people who land in prison for non-violent crimes, such as drug offenses. But Trump wants to raise mandatory sentences for drug offenders. A 2014 study already showed more prison time doesn't work as a deterrent to the dissemination and consumption of drugs. But Trump will return to the old War on Drugs. He'll be "tough on crime" at a time when America needs a new, rehabilitative approach. He'll support the stop-and-frisk policy that was unconstitutional and didn't actually help deter criminals.

The Justice Department was moving away from private prisons in the first place because they're not as safe and secure as public ones. And the private-prison system is intrinsically flawed, since it thrives on recidivism, not rehabilitation. Trump hasn't done much in the way of getting tough on crime, but he has struck a blow against lowering incarceration rates. Private prisons are like motels in the middle of nowhere. There's not a lot of competition, so they don't have to do a good job of keeping the place up. Thanks to the Citizens United ruling (which Trump is also a fan of), private-prison companies don't have any limits on the amount of money they can give to politicians to ensure they pass laws that see non-violent criminals end up behind bars.

Although Trump supports mass incarceration, there is reason to believe that state and local authorities are the ones who make the difference when it comes to proper sentencing and a sensible approach to criminal justice. Yet, a nation's leader sets the tone, and the federal government can also institute higher mandatory sentencing, and incentivize the creation of more prisons. By bringing back private prisons, Trump has already done the latter. It won't be long before he tries to do the former.

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