Impulsive and emotional reactions are Donald J. Trump’s trademark ― even more so than displaying his name in big gold letters on luxury buildings. These traits helped Trump win the presidential election, and they continue to harm innocent people every day.
For one of us, Trump’s impulsivity has had a deeply personal impact: When Raymond was just 14 years old, Trump called for his execution.
In 1989, two weeks after a female jogger was brutally raped, beaten and left for dead in Central Park, Trump paid $85,000 to place a series of ads in New York newspapers, calling for the state to “Bring Back The Death Penalty! Bring Back Our Police.”
While not explicitly calling for the death of the five teenagers who’d been charged with the attack in Central Park, the timing – and Trump’s own words – were clear.
Raymond was just a teenager when he was wrongfully convicted of the attack on Trisha Meili, as were Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Antron McCray and Kevin Richardson. The five boys were convicted even though the only “evidence” that linked them to the crime was their inaccurate and contradictory confessions, which were coerced by police. They all spent time in prison and then, after their staggered releases, spent years as registered sex offenders.
In 2002, the actual perpetrator, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime. DNA testing revealed he’d committed the crime alone. Raymond and the rest of the Central Park Five were exonerated.
One might assume an apology was in order, but Trump refused to acknowledge his error and instead continued to insist the Central Park Five were guilty. In a 2014 opinion piece, he called the city of New York’s multimillion-dollar settlement for the exonerated men “a disgrace.”
The president might be incapable of admitting his mistakes, but Americans have recognized the need for criminal justice reform. And we’ve come a long way since 1989. Across the country, death penalty sentences have declined in favor of life without parole. The public is increasingly aware of the War on Drugs failure, which has filled our prisons with non-violent offenders who need treatment more than they need punishment.
Prison populations are slowly declining; progressive district attorneys are winning elections; addiction is increasingly being treated as a public health problem instead of a criminal justice problem; and smart, research-backed reforms are being enacted in red and blue states alike. Twenty years ago, the idea that thousands of men and women across the U.S. sit in prison for crimes they did not commit seemed absurd ― not so, anymore.
But we’re nowhere close to done. True reform will require a kind of hard work we’re not yet versed in. It will require a fundamental shift in the way we think about incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. It will require treating each person who enters the criminal justice system with the dignity that should be afforded to every human, regardless of the offense they committed. This is difficult to learn because it means we must simultaneously acknowledge the emotions we feel after a crime is committed ― fear, anger, shock ― but not base a judicial system on those emotions.
But President Trump doesn’t like complicated things. He is not a scholar – not of policy or diplomacy, history or science, and certainly not of law. He prides himself on acting on pure gut instinct, despite the many times it has demonstrably failed him. His popularity is, in part, due to the easy answers he offers. He doesn’t traffic in nuance or grapple with moral ambiguity. If something isn’t good, it’s bad. If someone isn’t good, they’re expendable.
This mindset, along with the country’s impulse to punish and divide, has not served America well. The U.S. incarcerates at the highest rate in the world. We criminalize things like homelessness and addiction. We imprison people at a rate that exceeds that of the Soviet gulags at the height of their use. If the state of Georgia ― where we both live ― was a country, it would have the fourth highest rate of incarceration on the planet.
Many who commit crimes were victims first: of violence and abuse, institutionalized racism, poverty and addiction. When it comes to violent crime, many who hurt people were previously hurt by other people. If violence could be solved by incarceration, we’d be the safest country on earth. But we’re not.
President Trump doesn’t want you to think about all that. President Trump doesn’t want you to think, reflect or humanize at all. He wants you to react. And he wants your reaction to be one of fear, anger and hate. Because refusing to understand the mythical “other” is easy. Dehumanizing people who commit acts that horrify us is easy. Disregarding the mitigating factors that cause people to commit crimes is easy. Seeing the human behind the prison bars as a monster rather than learn their story is easy.
“Our impulse to incarcerate, punish and divide has not served us well.”
The U.S. has yet to fully reckon with its desire for vengeance. We’re no longer lynching black people in trees outside courthouses, but we’re allowing them to be murdered by police officers with impunity. We’re pumping incarcerated peoples’ veins full of pentobarbital and burying them behind prisons. We’re arresting people and keeping them behind bars because they can’t afford to pay their bail while they await trial. We’re putting people into cages and telling them they aren’t worth a second chance. We’re convicting innocent people in a race to convict someone for a crime.
To reform America’s criminal justice system, we must move away from a knee-jerk desire for vengeance and adopt a rehabilitative approach that is founded upon logic, years of research and, most importantly, empathy. And just as we expect offenders to admit their mistakes, the judicial system – and the president – must also admit when they’ve gotten it wrong. As Raymond told Anderson Cooper last week when discussing Trump’s recent pardon of Alice Johnson:
“At the end of the day, this move does not look like it comes from a good place. We can’t trust him. You can’t just dangle Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in our face and say … ‘Look, I have a heart, and I deserve a pass.’”
The U.S. is making strides toward lasting reform. But these positive policy changes will be for nothing if we don’t fundamentally change the way we respond to crimes ― and the people who commit them. President Trump has long advocated for the kind of emotional, fear-based reactions that feed mass incarceration and crumble communities with overly harsh prison terms. We can’t afford to act that way any longer.
Raymond Santana was 14 when he was wrongfully convicted ― alongside four other teenagers ― of the rape and assault of a female jogger in Central Park in 1989. He was exonerated in 2002. He is now a public speaker and owner of Park Madison NYC, a clothing line for men. He resides in Atlanta.
Hannah Riley is communications manager at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. She previously worked in criminal justice reform at the Innocence Project in New York and holds a master’s degree in criminology from the University of Cambridge. All opinions expressed are solely her own.