Trumped Up Crime: An Examination of “Tough On Crime” Policies and their Influence within the Trump Administration

By: Cary Holley, Chinaechelum Vincent, and Nia Kaudo

Throughout his campaign and as president, Trump has called for “law and order.” Such rhetoric has direct roots to presidents before him who helped create the era of mass incarceration that we live in today. So, to truly understand the weight of Trump’s statements it is important to review the policies and actions of former presidents who first popularized them.

One of the strongest proponents of the “tough on crime” doctrine was President Richard Nixon. A central component of his campaign platform in 1968 was to address the nation’s rising crime rate through implementing more law and order [1].  Such rhetoric was not only appealing to those who were anxious about crime, but also to those who were offended by the recent Civil Rights Movement [2]. Once in office, President Nixon thoroughly carried out his promise to be tougher on crime. He declared a “War on Drugs”, and under his administration the government’s law enforcement budget multiplied threefold and federal aid to state law enforcement grew substantially [1]  .

Years later when President Ronald Reagan came into office, this tough on crime doctrine was enforced further. In 1986 he signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which established mandatory minimum sentencing that, due to stricter penalties for crack cocaine, had disproportionately adverse effects for the African-American community [3] . Rates of incarceration consequently increased, but the push for law and order was far from over.

Following the approach of both the Reagan and Nixon administration, George H.W. Bush ran his 1988 campaign on the same “tough on crime” ideas. The infamous attack ad that accused opponent Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime solidified a new obsession with harsh punishment that was latent with racial undertones [3] . After Bush beat Dukakis, members of the democratic party realized that they could no longer afford to be seen as the soft-on-crime political party, which motivated Bill Clinton to change that perception through even more punitive legislation.

The criminal justice system continued to target communities of color at increasing rates under the Clinton administration. Clinton’s policies and actions, such as his signing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, explicit use of thinly veiled racialized rhetoric like “super predator” (a term coined by Professor John Dulilio in his 1995 article “The Coming of Super Predators” to describe Philadelphia youth), and an expansion of law enforcement’s authority led to the highest rate of incarceration in the country’s history at that time [4]. The Act of 1994 allocated $8.7 billion to build prisons in the states that enforced truth-in-sentencing laws, which were laws that required people convicted of a violent crime to complete at least 85% of their total prison sentence [5].

George W. Bush’s presidency followed suit, with prisons being constructed and filled quickly, despite a growing critique of the War on Drugs [6]. Prisons became profitable, arrests continued to be incentivized, and the power of judges continued to erode in the face of mandatory minimums.

President Barack Obama took office at a time when more information was emerging about the long-term systematic effort to incarcerate marginalized populations from society whether it was based on race, class, or mental health. The prison had become a device that was capable of carrying society’s disenfranchised out of sight and out of mind and punishing disadvantage side-by-side with crime. Under President Obama the incarceration rates continued to grow, partially due to intensified deportation efforts, which resulted in the detention of undocumented families in correctional facilities [5]. However, the Obama administration did play a role in a monumental victory for those in the fight against the carceral state: The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the infamous 100:1 sentencing disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine to 18:1 [7].

During his last few years Obama began discussing criminal justice issue more prominently. President Obama set a record of 1,715 presidential commutations granted mostly low-level drug offenders serving lengthy sentences [8]. Although the number of commutations under Obama is significant, they do not target the factors that will have a lasting impact to dismantle the carceral state.  In recent years due to the efforts and awareness of American citizens, the rate of incarceration has slowly declined.

The November election of Donald Trump foreshadows a return to “tough on crime” rhetoric. During his campaign trail, Trump continuously referenced how he, as president, would battle crime and work to lower crime rates. A notable segment was in his endorsement and support of stop-and-frisk policing in the crime potent cities, such as Chicago. Trump’s comments were met with backlash, as the stop-and-frisk structure was deemed unconstitutional by New York in 2013. Researchers found that “In 2002 the NYPD made 97,296 stops and 82 percent of those stopped, or 80,017, were not charged with any crime”[9]. Racial profiling and discrimination seemed to play a big role in the stop-and-frisks. Trump’s continued support of this policy despite the findings demonstrates a lack of knowledge of how the system operates, and a sense of disregard to the realities of the impacts of these “tough on crime” policies.

The Death Penalty has been a major point of political contestation in recent years. Trump’s position on the case of the Central Park Five further indicates an increase of punitive policies under the new administration. In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem, New York, were charged for assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park. Trump spent, “$85,000 placing full-page ads in the four daily papers in New York City, calling for the return of the death penalty” [10]. He also wrote that, “Muggers and murderers should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, should be executed for their crimes”[10]. In 2003 DNA evidence confirmed that the Central Park Five were not the true perpetrators of the offense, and they were subsequently cleared from the crime. Trump did not revoke his previous statements about The Central Park Five, but instead continued to express a extremely punitive standpoint regarding the issue of crime. Trump’s inability to recognize the numerous amounts of wrongful convictions, which are heavily placed upon minorities, will advance the administration’s punitive crime agenda.

Current Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has no commitment to upholding the frequent investigations of police misconduct that was instated under Eric Holder in the Obama Administration. Between 2009-2015 Holder led a, “Justice Department [that] was uniquely aggressive at investigating police for misconduct and abuses. His administration investigated more police departments than its predecessors, often finding horrific abuses”[11]. Trump and Sessions have additionally suggested that they abstain from major civil rights lawsuits. This new lack of oversight creates a large possibility for the continuation of police brutality without consequences.

The crime approach of the Trump administration is reflective of that of the Nixon administration in that it has the potential to negatively impact the trajectory of the criminal justice system. The removal of comprehensive policies that create oversight and protect those most vulnerable to the criminal justice system is detrimental to the future of our country. Serious efforts towards criminal justice reform will need to emerge from third-party organizations, as the previous advancements made in improving the criminal justice system are now in great danger.



[2] [7]










DiIulio, John. “The coming of the super-predators.” The Weekly Standard 1.11 (1995): 23-30.

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