President Trump needs to prove he’s serious about criminal justice reform AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File
AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

By Alexander Chaconas

During his most recent State of the Union address, Donald Trump said he would reform prisons in order to give inmates a second chance. While Trump addressing this issue is a step in the right direction, if it’s anything more than hot air, he needs to first focus on severe legal and ethical injustices towards those accused of breaking the law.

Trump should begin with looking at the serious civil rights abuses by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. In 2017, arrests of undocumented immigrants at courthouses in New York grew from 11 to 110, compared to the year before. While this number may seem trivial, it is only the beginning of a national effort to boost courthouse arrests. Trump has suggested that expanding immigration restrictions is to keep out crime, but many of these court hearings involve low-level, nonviolent offenses.

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ICE agents have even undermined humanitarian programs, such as Operation Indonesian Surrender, which was implemented in New Hampshire to provide refuge to Indonesian immigrants escaping religious persecution. Agents ordered members of the program to leave the country without due process. This is in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which prohibits the government from removing a noncitizen to a country where that person’s life or liberty would be in danger because of identity or membership in a particular social or political group. For this reason, a district judge has temporarily blocked further deportation of Indonesians in the program, but is unsure how long she can delay without proper jurisdiction since immigration matters are usually handled by the executive branch.

What makes this matter more urgent is the recent unwarranted arrests of immigrant spouses seeking legal residency. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Zadvydas v. Davis that due process of the 14th Amendment applies to undocumented immigrants, which means they have a right to fair legal treatment. Stripping them of this fundamental right is a gross violation of our Constitution. If Trump legitimately wants to give people a “second chance,” he should prevent ICE agents from unlawfully taking advantage of those looking for one.

Looking the other way on ICE abuses won’t reduce the recidivism rate––and neither will Trump’s vague plans to tackle it. The leading idea on the table involves federally adopting state-level rehabilitation programs, but the endeavor is useless unless it remedies the underlying causes of resentencing. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of prisoners in jail for technical parole violations, missing curfews or appointments, or coming back with drug-positive urine, increased by 20 percent. The justification for locking up these parole violators is that they are assumed more likely to recommit crimes, but that does not hold true. Reducing punishment for these petty offenses must be an integral part of any rehabilitation efforts.

The jailing of “dirty urine” offenders is part of the larger war on drugs that has corrupted our criminal justice system. In the middle of last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that he would ramp up civil asset forfeiture––a policy that allows some states’ law enforcement agencies to seize assets, without due process, from individuals suspected of nonviolent, drug-related crimes. Between 1986 and 2014, civil asset forfeiture revenue grew from $93.7 million to $4.5 billion and will most likely continue to grow under Sessions’ initiative. Some state law enforcement agencies are giving this revenue to the federal government for “safeguarding”, instead of spending it on treatment programs that have prevented the same drug-related crimes they’re trying to combat. Civil asset forfeiture is exploitative and unconstitutional per the Fifth Amendment, and it needs to be abolished, not bolstered.

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Sessions’ counterproductive initiatives don’t end there. Lax enforcement of federal marijuana laws under the Obama administration led to a decrease in violent crime where states legalized medical and/or recreational marijuana. With Sessions’ rescindment of that Obama-era policy, state attorneys can now decide what will and will not be prosecuted, which might scare some marijuana dispensaries out of operation. It has potential to raise crime levels back up since some marijuana users would be forced to once again rely on unlawful means, through the black market or cartels, for access. Trump asserts he will curtail the recidivism rate, but unless he removes Sessions from his cabinet, that won’t be a possibility.

Without addressing ICE abuses, civil rights violations, and the underlying causes of recidivism, any executive attempt at criminal justice reform is questionable and likely ineffective.

Alexander Chaconas is an advocate for Young Voices and a journalist residing in Arlington, Virginia. He writes about criminal justice reform, entitlement reform, and culture. Follow him on Twitter @alex_chaconas.

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