By Katrina Pierson, Senior Advisor to Trump 2020
When President Trump delivered the keynote address on criminal justice at Benedict College last week in South Carolina, he did an excellent presentation to the audience at that Historically Black College and University (HBCU). President Trump displayed a substantive and compassionate style of leadership that contracted a common misconception about his leadership style.
An extraordinary amount of energy goes towards painting a picture of President Trump as a leader under siege, willing to speak only to steadfast supporters. In reality, Donald Trump has always been able to go before any audience to deliver his message — and unlike some career politicians, his message is always the same no matter where he speaks.
As President, that message naturally begins with his record of policy successes and promises kept. It’s a record he’s justifiably proud of, and that pride is evident whether he’s before a packed stadium of supporters or at a historically black college for a forum that also featured six of his would-be Democrat opponents.
When it comes to criminal justice reform, President Trump’s record is misunderstood as often as his style of public interaction. That’s why when the President delivered remarks detailing “The Conservative Case for Criminal Justice Reform” at Benedict College, he profiled the landmark FIRST STEP Act.
The foremost purpose of the criminal justice system is to protect citizens by punishing and rehabilitating criminals. To that end, the federal government significantly enhanced criminal penalties throughout the 1980s and 1990s, increasing the length of minimum sentences for a variety of crimes and making the conditions of confinement harsher.
Some aspects of that “get tough” strategy were effective, and crime rates began to plummet from the all-time highs reached in the early 1990s because the worst offenders were receiving prison sentences rather than slaps on the wrist.
But some lawmakers took the strategy too far. It culminated in the 1994 omnibus crime bill — written by Joe Biden — that, among other things, created federal “three strikes” laws and restricted prisoners’ ability to get an education behind bars. A growing number of non-violent felons began to see longer sentences, too, especially for drug-related crimes. Even after being released, former inmates found it extraordinarily difficult to get jobs afterwards.
Worst of all, the burden of these policies fell disproportionately on the black community, with a huge percentage of young black men becoming tied up in the criminal justice system.
President Trump determined that these inequities should be corrected without sacrificing the progress we’ve made in combating violent crime. He was right, and he naturally wants all Americans to know it.
Last December, the President signed the FIRST STEP Act, which addressed many of the most glaring issues that made criminal justice unfair for African Americans. The law makes it easier for inmates to earn early-release credits for good behavior, for instance, giving prisoners, especially low-level drug offenders, greater opportunities to rebuild their lives as productive members of society. It also provides the job-training and skills-building they need to succeed when they get out, reducing the likelihood that they’ll return to a life of crime.
In addition, the reforms also included new, fairer sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine possession, bringing the penalties in line with those for powder cocaine. Significantly, this change was applied retroactively, benefiting thousands of unfairly-sentenced prisoners.
President Trump takes great pride in those accomplishments, which explains why he agreed to participate in a forum that any conventional politician would have avoided. With no real competition for the Republican nomination in 2020, the President could have stayed on the sidelines and allowed the Democrat candidates to attack each other. Instead, he chose to present the conservative perspective on criminal justice reform to an audience that would otherwise hear only liberal viewpoints, even though his participation was characteristically met with unjustified attacks by his would-be challengers.
The FIRST STEP Act upholds one end of the criminal justice bargain to the black community: 90 percent of the prisoners who have been released thus far thanks to the new law are African Americans.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been upholding the other end of that bargain by empowering law enforcement to more effectively combat violent crime, which also disproportionately affects the black community. The rate of both violent crime and property crime in the United States has fallen dramatically under this President.
President Trump looks forward to building on these successes. He has outlined a plan to help provide non-violent offenders with “second chance hiring” by reducing restrictions on federal hiring and incentivizing companies to hire employees with criminal backgrounds.
That’s the message that he took to Benedict College and to Black America. The Democrats went to that same forum with future proposals and plans, while President Trump went with “promises kept” in the form of concrete results improving the lives of all Americans and their families and communities, and in particular for African Americans and their families and communities.
To the inevitable dismay of the Democrat candidates who spoke on the same topic after him, this President has a record that he’ll gladly defend anywhere, any time, and in front of any audience.
Katrina Pierson is a senior adviser for Donald J. Trump for President Inc.