Donald Trump Does Not Know Policy, Starting With Criminal Justice Reform

The general issue of criminal justice reform is so broad/complex that it cannot be addressed with populist sound bites.

However, someone forgot to tell that to the Republican Party nominee for President of the United States.

Simplistic "solutions" may address single elements but cannot cover the gamut of root causes, unintended consequences, or issues of equity. The "one size fits all" approach, driven by political considerations, disallows coherent policy and discourages serious debate.

Blanket arguments (such as international comparisons of prison populations) do not consider the fundamental differences among individual counties' laws. Introduction of inmates' background introduces race/class/status arguments that are inherently discriminatory.

As a society we must make distinctions between retribution and revenge, between punishment and rehabilitation, and between the costs of incarceration and that of a "slap on the wrist".

Further issues arise relative to the use of prison labor in all manner of industries - agriculture, light manufacturing, construction, etc.

At the core of many discussions relative to prison reform is the issue related to uniform mandatory sentencing and, as appropriate, state-to-state variations.

Perhaps one of the more contentious issues is the age-old practice of "letting the punishment fit the crime".

In an admittedly brief review of citations that contrast the views on the broad subject of Criminal Justice Reform, there are widely different expressions of suggested actions and their consequences. Perhaps the greatest contrast is not something that can be specifically referenced, but is one that represents a fundamental difference: namely, the consideration of long-term effects and impacts.

At first glance - which is all that the rally-attending crowds usually gets on the subject - one view tends to emphasize a near-term simplistic approach that focuses on retribution. In large part, this approach translates to technical short-range, action- and satisfaction-now responses.

We contrast that with the approaches and elements that tend to characterize a starkly different view, that of rehabilitation, prevention and building a positive structure that will continue to reduce crime rates. In this latter case consideration is given to the long-term strategic goals that stress prevention and rehabilitation, especially for non-violent and "victimless" crimes.

The gap between approaches - as well as the vast differences between the types of situations to which they would apply - complicates constructive comparison and critique.

Individual studies and reports have addressed various aspects of the criminal justice system, some on sentencing, some on alternative treatment of convicted criminals, some on diversion projects. But to date there appears to be little in the way of integrative studies that cover the broad range of laws, conditions, treatments, alternate punishments and, perhaps as important as any other factor, the direct and indirect impacts of different approaches.

While one may disagree with some of the conclusions and recommended directions of past studies, there are two distinct take-aways from the literature. On the positive side, research projects and analyses have addressed, to varying degrees, broad sets of factors that characterize the criminal justice system. Among these are considerations of:

  • events and background (profile of the parties, specifics of the crime, applicable laws)
  • adjudication (pleas, judge vs. jury, representation, verdict, sentencing)
  • incarceration (terms, rehabilitation, education, counseling, positive interactions)
  • release (restrictions, integration, recidivism, societal and economic impacts)

Each of these classes and subclasses of investigation has been the subject of focused experiments, evidence-based risk analysis, and recommendations relative to modifications in that particular and isolated aspect of the issue.

On the other hand, there is little evidence of the fact that these "straight-line" studies have been integrated to account for the cross-impacts among all aspects of the problem, the interactions that link the recommendations regarding one factor with those from a seemingly unrelated part of the total puzzle. The situation is most readily pictured as a bicycle wheel composed of many spokes that originate at the periphery and are all focused at the hub, where the combination provides the linkage necessary to accomplish the overall objective. However independent the spokes may appear, it is apparent that they are truly interlinked: an imperfection or failure of any one can reduce the effectiveness of the whole and preclude the execution or accomplishment of the desired result.

It is at this point that attention should be directed toward broad consideration of the interactions between all of the elements in the system, answering questions such as "does the introduction of one concept - perhaps very effective for attacking one problem - assist (or complicate) the alleviation of any or all of the other problems?"

As noted throughout this discussion, the criminal justice system is complicated, fraught with apparent inequity, generally understood only in fragments - selected by temporary passions - and expensive. When taken as a whole, one can hope to resolve or alleviate the most egregious disparities and aspire to approaches which can be effective and reflective of a just society. The use of advanced decision-support tools - with inputs from both scholars and practitioners - is essential in approaching a resolution of basic unfairness.

The issues are obvious, the tools are available, and the objectives are commendable. It is (well past) time for leadership and commitment -- none of which Donald Trump is prepared for beyond blanket statements without specifics in his own search to "Make America Great Again".

Michael Duga has served in political and strategic roles beginning in the Clinton Administration. This includes serving as Chief of Staff to Former Senator Max Cleland and as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Department of Defense. Mr. Duga is currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Say No To Trump political action committee,