Foon Rhee

How much will Trump reverse course on mass incarceration?

President Barack Obama became the first president to visit a federal prison in July 2015 when he toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma to promote criminal justice reform.
President Barack Obama became the first president to visit a federal prison in July 2015 when he toured the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma to promote criminal justice reform. Associated Press

California has been leading the way on prison and sentencing reform, a cause that Barack Obama embraced in the final stretch of his presidency. But it looks like mass incarceration will be another huge policy U-turn from President-elect Donald Trump.

His law-and-order crusade, however, would ignore the reality that locking up a lot of nonviolent and drug offenders costs taxpayers a ton of money without improving public safety very much. A new study estimates that nearly 40 percent of those behind bars don’t need to be there, based on the seriousness of the crime and the risk of committing another.

That includes 25 percent, or 364,000 prisoners in state and federal lockups who are nonviolent and should be in substance abuse treatment, on community service or on probation, the Brennan Center for Justice says. An additional 14 percent, or 212,000 inmates, committed more serious offenses but have served long enough and could be released without much danger to the public, the center says.

If these 576,000 prisoners were let out, it could save nearly $20 billion a year – money that could be used to hire more police officers, probation officers or even teachers, the Brennan Center researchers say. They recommend that Congress and state legislatures eliminate prison time for lower-level crimes and reduce sentence lengths.

California has already moved in the direction of reserving prison for the most violent and dangerous criminals, though, like other states, it needs to make much more progress in drug treatment, job training and other services to give ex-cons a second chance.

In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment started sending state prisoners to county jails and probation. In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47 to reduce drug and other felonies to misdemeanors. Last month, voters passed Proposition 57 to make more felons eligible for parole sooner.

The number of inmates in the state prison system – under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding – has dropped from about 172,500 in 2006 to about 128,000 in 2016.

On the federal level, the prison population has gone from a high of more than 219,000 in 2013 to 190,000 this month. Obama says too many Americans are in prison for relatively minor drug offenses – and a disproportionate number are black and Latino. While a bipartisan bill to reduce some federal sentences stalled in Congress, he has commuted more sentences than the previous 11 presidents combined – more than 1,000, mostly low-level drug offenders.

As on so many issues, Obama expected a Democratic successor to carry on his reforms. Hillary Clinton pledged to move forward on the issue, a touchy one because activists blame her husband Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill for fueling mass incarceration.

This report isn’t likely to get much traction in the Trump administration. While he didn’t lay out many specific policies, he talked tough on crime, expressed support for private prisons and suggested bringing back “stop-and-frisk,” a tactic that put minorities behind bars. If anything, the prison population could grow if more undocumented immigrants are rounded up and if Trump’s Cabinet ramps up the war on drugs again.

It may win Trump more adoration from his supporters, but if we reverse course on mass incarceration, it will be a mistake that haunts America for a long time to come.

By the numbers

Adult prison population in California on June 30 of each year:















Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation