In the decade or so before Donald Trump became president, America’s approach to criminal justice was changing fast — reckoning with decades of destructive and ineffective policies that had ballooned the prison population and destroyed countless lives. Red and blue states were putting in place smart, sensible reforms like reducing harsh sentencing laws, slashing prison populations and crime rates, and providing more resources for the thousands of people who are released every week.
President Obama’s record on the issue was far from perfect, but he and his first attorney general, Eric Holder Jr., took several key steps: weakening racially discriminatory sentencing laws, shortening thousands of absurdly long drug sentences, and pulling back on the prosecution of low-level drug offenders and of federal marijuana offenses in states that have legalized it. This approach reflected state-level efforts and sent a message of encouragement to those still leery of reform.
Within minutes of taking office, Mr. Trump turned back the dial, warning darkly in his Inaugural Address of “American carnage,” of cities and towns gutted by crime — even though crime rates are at their lowest in decades. Things only got worse with the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who, along with Mr. Trump, appears to be stuck in the 1980s, when politicians exploited the public’s fear of rising crime to sell absurdly harsh laws and win themselves re-election. Perhaps that’s why both men seem happy to distort, if not outright lie about, crime statistics that no longer support their narrative.