Some supporters of President Trump have concluded that his decision to pardon Alice Johnson is rooted in a larger concern about how the criminal justice system affects people of color. But his administration's track record on the issue indicates otherwise.
The president commuted on Wednesday the sentence of Johnson, a woman serving a life term for a nonviolent crime, after discussing her case with reality television star and socialite Kim Kardashian West, the wife of Trump supporter and hip-hop artist Kanye West.
The action was the latest in a recent string of pardons and other acts of clemency from Trump, and aides haves suggested that more could be on the way.
Johnson, 63, was sentenced to life in prison on federal drug possession and money laundering charges after being convicted in Tennessee in 1996. Kardashian West was drawn to her case after seeing a video about it on the news outlet Mic.com.
Given that Johnson's commutation came less than a week after Kardashian West met with Trump at the White House, some have credited her with possibly helping reshape the president's position on criminal justice reform.
Before the meeting with Kardashian West, Trump said in May at the White House Prison Reform Summit:
“As we speak, legislation is working through Congress to reform our federal prisons. My administration strongly supports these efforts, and I urge the House and Senate to get together — and there are a lot of senators, a lot of Congress people that want to get this passed — to work out their differences. Get a bill to my desk. I will sign it, and it’s going to be strong, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be what everybody wants ... So we’re going to have something that’s going to make you very proud. Really, very proud. We want — like we do with veterans choice, we want the finest — the finest prison reform that you can have anywhere. The finest. That’s very important.”
But recent reports suggest this has not been a top priority for the administration.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, Trump spent much of his first year rolling back Obama administration efforts on criminal justice reform and could end up ballooning the prison population. The center released a report after Trump's first year in office. It states:
“They have used short memoranda or subtle changes in enforcement strategy to quietly undo much of President Barack Obama’s criminal justice reform legacy. In its place, they have built a more draconian vision of law enforcement, centered around immigration. While many of these changes occurred without drawing public scrutiny, consequences have already begun to materialize in areas such as immigration enforcement. Over the next three years, these shifts could cause the federal prison population to begin increasing again, reversing what small progress had been made to reduce federal over-incarceration. Further, the administration’s words and deeds on criminal justice could disrupt bipartisan efforts to build a fairer, more effective justice system at the state and local levels.”
Shortly after Trump's inauguration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an eight-paragraph memo calling for more uniform punishments, such as mandatory minimums, for those convicted of crimes such as drug dealing and encouraging prosecutors to pursue harsh charges.
Given this, what is more likely to have motivated Trump's decision on Johnson is his relationship with Kardashian West and her husband.
Kardashian West and Trump, both television reality stars, have been acquainted for some time.
“She’s a nice person,” Trump said on HLN's “Showbiz Tonight” in 2014. “I’ve known her over the years. She’s really a nice person.”
More recently, he has taken to praising her husband publicly, including at the National Rifle Association conference, and crediting the rapper with helping him win more support among black Americans.
Many of the recipients of Trump’s acts of clemency have been celebrities and friends. Among them are controversial former sheriff Joe Arpaio, conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza and Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a former chief of staff to Vice President Richard B. Cheney.
And those recipients who aren't famous or well-known are usually associated with those who are. The Washington Post's Philip Bump broke that down here.
The photograph of Kardashian West and Trump in the Oval Office drew quite a bit of attention. But to more comprehensively assess the Trump administration's philosophy on criminal justice reform, Americans would be better served to keep their eye on the actions of Sessions and the Justice Department instead.