The Neoliberal Approach to Criminal Justice and Trump’s First Step Act

“I don’t care why someone is a malefactor in society. I don’t care why someone is antisocial. I don’t care why they’ve become a sociopath. We have an obligation to cordon them off from the rest of society.”

This is Joe Biden from the US Senate floor in 1993 speaking about “predators on our streets” who he specifically identifies as “young people, tens of thousands of them, born out of wedlock, without parents, without supervision, without any structure, without any conscience developing because they literally have not been socialized.” “We have no choice but to take them out of society,” Biden says in his fiery speech. Here’s the speech:

Biden’s Senate speech was in the service of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a catalog of draconian laws and policies he played a major role in formulating. In fact, he wrote the damn thing. It contained, among other things, the “three strikes” formulation that disproportionately impacted black people, driving mass incarceration in the following years—all this at the same time he was scheming with transnational corporations to put American workers out of work and lower their standards of living, policies that disproportionately affected black people.

We all know who Biden was talking about. He was talking about young black men, the same population of young Americans Hillary Clinton described as “superpredators” in a 1996 speech in New Hampshire in support of the 1994 crime bill that her husband, Bill Clinton, signed in to law. Hillary Clinton said this of black youth: “They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy.” She said that before we “talk about why they ended up that way,” “we have to bring them to heel.” This was all part of the progressive Democrat “get tough on crime” push. Here’s the speech:

Contrast the Biden-Clinton crime bill with the First Step Act that President Donald Trump signed into law in 2018. The First Step Act eliminates the “three strikes” life sentencing provision, and expands judges’ discretion in sentencing of non-violent crimes, among other log-overdue reforms. According to the White House, the First Step Act helps inmates return to society by expanding access to rehabilitative programs. These programs leverage innovative life-course/within-subject research to assess the needs and address the risks of prisoners to promote rehabilitation. Specific reforms include expanding Pell Grants to provide education and training to inmates prior to release and the “Ready to Work Initiative” to help connect employers with former prisoners and expand employment opportunities.

We know from the research that jobs are the single most important intervention in reducing recidivism. It was the neoliberal policies of the Democratic Party that threw American workers into competition with foreign workers both at home and abroad. Under Democrats going back to the 1960s, the nation saw black unemployment rise to two and three times the rate of that for whites. The black community are particularly hard hit by globalization.

Prior to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, Trump’s economic nationalism saw the lowest unemployment rates for black Americans in several decades, lifting millions of black families out of poverty. Combined with criminal justice reform, the policies of economic nationalism, by ameliorating criminogenic conditions, promise to sharply reduce crime and violence in the future. Indeed, before the emergence of militant Black Lives Matter movement and the progressive push for depolicing, violent crime was down. All crime, in fact declined under Trump. Since violent crime drives incarceration, progress on this front portends an even sharper reduction in prison populations going forward, building on the already sharply downward trajectory of the last few years.

You may not like Donald Trump’s house style, but we cannot go back to the failed policies of neoliberalism.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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