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RNC: Former convict praises Trump as a justice champion; advocates question his record

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VIDEO | 04:51
RNC: Former convict Alice Johnson praises Trump as a justice champion

Former prisoner Alice Marie Johnson thanks Trump for releasing her from a life sentence. But advocates say one case does not make him a criminal justice reformer.

She’d already been a presidential guest at the 2019 State of the Union speech. And starred in one of this year’s most popular Super Bowl ads. On the final night of the Republican National Convention, Alice Marie Johnson again praised President Trump for freeing her from a life prison sentence for a relatively minor drug offense.

The Trump campaign hopes that the emotional personal testimony by the Tennessee great-grandmother will paint the president as a criminal justice reformer — compassionate and moved to stop injustice.

Experts say his record on crime and punishment is far more problematic, demonstrated by his support of more coercive policing, reduction of oversight on troubled law enforcement agencies and failure to move beyond a 2018 law that reduced incarceration.

“To use this one example to claim the mantle of a criminal justice reformer is so cynical,” said David Sklansky, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. “It just flies in the face of reality.”

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That does not mean that Johnson’s story is less compelling, or her apparent devotion to Trump less sincere. “When President Trump heard about me, about the injustice of my story — he saw me as a person. He had compassion. And he acted,” said Johnson, 65.

She described a metamorphosis that began during her more than 20 years in prison, one that included working with the disabled, in hospice care and as an ordained minister. She even became a playwright, she told the convention audience.

Her fall into despair began in Memphis, Tenn., in the 1990s as a single mother of five children; she buckled under the weight of unemployment and gambling. She joined a cocaine distribution ring, before being arrested in 1993 for transporting the drug from Houston to Memphis. Under mandatory sentencing guidelines, her conviction for cocaine distribution, money laundering and conspiracy led to a sentence of life in prison without parole.

That story did not distinguish Johnson from thousands of other lifers in state and federal prisons, many of them Black. But a 2018 video of Johnson explaining her struggle went viral, catching the attention of entertainer Kim Kardashian West.

The reality TV star soon visited Trump at the White House to plead for leniency. In short order, he commuted Johnson’s sentence.

Her story became even more widely known in February, with a Trump ad that reached more than 100 million Super Bowl fans. On-screen chyrons proclaimed that “Politicians talk about criminal justice reform” while “President Trump got it done.” Between those declarations, a tearful Johnson thanked the president. “This is the greatest day of my life!” she said.

The use of the presidential pardon is not the most efficient way to reverse the kind of mass incarceration that Democrats and many Republicans now agree has been problematic, criminal justice analysts said. And Trump has chosen to focus many of his grants of clemency not on the thousands of everyday people waiting for a review, but on political allies or people connected to him personally.

Last month, he commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, just as his longtime advisor was about to face 40 months in prison for lying to federal investigators, witness tampering and impeding a congressional inquiry.

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Others who received pardons or commuted sentences include Trump supporters Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff held in criminal contempt by a judge for detaining people only on a suspicion they were in the country illegally, and Dinesh D’Souza, the filmmaker and conservative provocateur convicted of making illegal campaign contributions.

The Stone case marked Trump’s 10th commutation, comparable to the record of President George W. Bush, but far short of the 1,715 commutations ordered by President Obama.

Trump’s most expansive incarceration reform came in 2018, when his White House helped negotiate the First Step Act, a law designed to give judges more discretion to reverse some of the harsh determinate sentencing of the 1990s.

By the start of this year, nearly 2,400 inmates had their sentences cut because of the act’s provision attempting to equalize sentences for crack and power cocaine offenders. (Crack inmates, more often Black and Latino, received disproportionately more time than the white prisoners who used powder cocaine.)

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Johnson called the law “real justice reform,” adding: “And it brought joy, hope and freedom to thousands of well-deserving people. I hollered, ‘Hallelujah!’”

Reformers celebrated the law, but said that, as its name might suggest, it was only a “first step.” They have challenged Trump to do more, in particular to advocate for reforms by the states, which imprison the vast majority of offenders.

Leader of police group that backed Obama-Biden throws support to President Trump. Praises president’s ‘steadfast’ support during difficult times.

When it comes to policing, Trump has been the opposite of a reformer, particularly in advocating that police have latitude in the use of force, critics said. He has made light of officers protecting the heads of arrestees they placed into their patrol cars. He has strongly supported “stop and frisk” practices that have led to young Black and Latino men being confronted by police far more often than white people. And his Justice Department has made little effort to keep tabs on police departments repeatedly cited for excessive force and other misbehavior.

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Under President Obama, the Department of Justice opened 25 investigations of law enforcement agencies and reached 19 agreements requiring reforms. Fourteen of those agreements were court-ordered “consent decrees” that gave federal judges oversight of police reforms.

The Trump Justice Department has gone mostly silent on the issue, though it did launch an investigation of the Chicago Police Department in 2017, in the wake of the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. But no additional oversight came out of the investigation.

“He wants more police force. He wants more stop-and-frisk. And he doesn’t want police to be more careful when they handle suspects,” said Sklansky, who is also a Stanford Law professor. “He has pretty consistently called for pushing police in exactly the wrong direction.”


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