New data shows that the number of incarcerated African Americans declined significantly during the Obama-era, the Pew Research Center reported. That progress, however, will reverse under the Trump administration’s strategy of undoing President Barack Obama’s criminal justice reform legacy. The new administration is returning to policies that disproportionately targeted the Black community.
The Black incarceration rate decreased by 17 percent between 2009 and 2016. Federal and state prisons held 584,800 Black inmates in 2009 and fell to 486,900 at the end of 2016. At the same time, the stubborn gap between Black and white prisoners also decreased. This decline is viewed as a significant step in the right direction, even though Blacks are still disproportionately incarcerated. African Americans represented 12 percent of the U.S. population in 2016 but 33 percent of the prison population.
That progress could soon reverse. In 2016, the Obama Justice Department announced a plan to scale back the use of private prisons, which are operated by for-profit companies. President Donald Trump, who has falsely claimed that violent crime is on the rise, came into office and rescinded the Obama policy, signaling the need for more prison space.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who passionately shares Trump’s distaste for criminal justice reform, has taken steps toward returning to the war on drugs that targeted the Black community. He directed federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest charges against suspects. Under the Obama Justice Department, former Attorney General Eric Holder pushed for sentencing reform that included directing prosecutors to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. At the same time, President Obama commuted the long sentences of more than 1,700 federal inmates who committed minor drug crimes.
While the Obama Justice Department pursued criminal justice reform, the Trump and Sessions DOJ have no interest in correcting the racially biased system. Sessions has dismissed calls to change the system, telling reformers that they should focus on stopping crime through harsher sentencing.