It’s a little surprising that a president such as Donald Trump would jolt the country toward criminal justice reform, but he’s spontaneous, if anything.

On Dec. 21, 2018, Mr. Trump signed the First Step Act into law. The items outlined in this bill could make life a bit easier for prisoners, placing them in prisons closer to home, limiting restraints against pregnant women, allowing de-escalation training for prison officers and decreasing recidivism.

Other changes it can affect? It expands credits for prisoners, which can lead to earlier release dates; it reduces the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine and makes overall prison conditions better.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Now, there’s concern surrounding the bill. William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, is worrying people largely over the Russia investigation. However, he’s also worrying those who are pushing for criminal justice reform.

William Barr

Barr was previously attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. If he’s confirmed by senators, he would become the head of the U.S. Department of Justice. That means he’d be calling the shots, with heavy influence over the First Step Act.

Historically, he’s been all for mass incarceration and tougher crime policies, which is what has some criminal justice reformers in a tizzy.

A tweet from Ames Grawert, senior counsel at The Brennan Center, said, “Barr is one of the few people left in policy circles who could reasonably be called as bad as, or worse than, Jeff Sessions on criminal justice reform.”

Here are a few aspects of Barr’s history, as reported by Vox, that are worrying criminal justice reformers:

  • “In 1994, Barr co-chaired a commission for Virginia’s governor that released a plan to abolish parole (which allows certain inmates to go free before the completion of their sentences) in the state, increase prison sentences, and build more prisons.
  • Barr also once said that it was “simply a myth” that there were “sympathetic people” and “hapless victims of the criminal justice system” in prisons, according to David Krajicek at Salon.
  • As deputy attorney general from 1990 to 1991 and attorney general from 1991 to 1993, Barr pushed for and helped implement more punitive criminal justice policies, including a 1990 crime law that, among other things, escalated the war on drugs.”

And those, folks, are just a few.

Of course, it’s true — people can change. It’s been decades since Barr has been in such a position as attorney general. But will Mr. Barr pull the U.S. back before it can really make a first step on criminal justice reform?

What do you think?


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