Kim Kardashian West managed to get President Donald Trump to do the unexpected. She went to the White House to ask for clemency for the prison sentence of Alice Johnson, who had been in prison for 21 years over a first-time nonviolent drug offense and was originally going to serve for life without parole. Trump said yes — and commuted Johnson’s sentence.
Jared Kushner, whose own father was in prison for tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions and witness tampering, is working to pass legislation that intends to reduce recidivism rates called the First Step Act. The act has recently passed the house and is moving forward onto the next step.
The commutation seems to counteract Trump’s original agenda to create a “law and order” administration, but not in the way that it needs to. If Trump is really interested in prison reform, which he should be, he would not have allowed his Attorney General Jeff Sessions to roll back Obama-era policy on prisons; for example, the creation of a prison school system. No, this clemency shows what is truly valuable for the president: optics and celebrity.
Initially, Johnson applied for clemency in 2016 under the Obama administration and was denied. President Donald Trump enjoys little more than being able to claim he did something that Obama did not or could not do. The current moves Sessions and Kushner are making on prison reform, such as slashing the budget for prisons, could make Trump temporarily popular among conservatives so that he can cut taxes, while reinstating those commitments through someone like Kushner might make him look like a reformer, when, in fact, it has been more of a strange personal loyalty and public relations tango.
President Trump also could have decided to hear this case partially because it came from Kim Kardashian West, who is an important figure to have on his side, especially after her husband publicly declared support for his administration.
Trump’s own past pardons also show that he is mostly interested in pardoning people who have big celebrity clout or who have voiced conservative viewpoints in the past, regardless of the crime. In today’s celebrity culture, this story generated a lot of buzz. Yet, even the message that Kardashian West was spreading got diluted.
American prisons are filled with people convicted for nonviolent drug offenses, who suffer in the horrible conditions of prisons that are often privately run for profit. Mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes are the kind of laws that hurt communities, but, make no mistake, these laws are the ones President Trump was speaking about when he said, “law and order.”
Anyone can read and learn about the ways that the prison system needs to change. President Donald Trump has to change minds on his side; seemingly, the ones who follow him will believe almost anything he says and defend him no matter what. So why not use that power to change the way people think about incarceration?
If this pardon leads to the Trump administration taking a new direction and creating legislation intended to reduce the prison population and reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes, especially on the first offense, it will be a good sign that the administration can be influenced to do what’s right, even when it isn’t patently conservative. But don’t hold your breath.