The Trump administration’s criminal justice policies are threatening to reverse the progress President Barack Obama made in reducing the number of Black people in prison, new data reported by the Pew Research Center has suggested.
The Black incarceration rate decreased by 17 percent between 2009 and 2016, the new research found. Federal and state prisons held 584,800 Black inmates in 2009 and fell to 486,900 at the end of 2016. At the same time, the stubborn gap between Black and White prisoners also decreased. This decline was viewed as a significant step in the right direction, even though Blacks remained disproportionately incarcerated. African-Americans represented 12 percent of the U.S. population in 2016, but in prison that number ballooned to 33 percent of the prison population.
That progress could soon reverse. In 2016, Obama’s Justice Department announced a plan to scale back the use of private prisons, which are operated by for-profit companies. President Donald Trump, who has not completely truthfully claimed that violent crime was on rise, came into office and rescinded the Obama policy, signaling the need for more prison space.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has passionately shared Trump’s distaste for criminal justice reform, took steps toward returning to the war on drugs that targeted the Black community. He has directed federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest charges against suspects. Under the Obama Justice Department, former Attorney General Eric Holder pushed for sentencing reform that included directing prosecutors to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. At the same time, Obama commuted the long sentences of more than 1,700 federal inmates who committed minor drug crimes.
While the Obama Justice Department pursued criminal justice reform, the Trump and Sessions DOJ have no interest in correcting the racially biased system. Sessions has dismissed calls to change the system, telling advocates for reform they should focus on stopping crime through harsher sentencing.