Austin Sarat, a professor jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College, raises an interesting point in a recent MSNBC opinion piece: progressives who typically frown upon incarceration seem eager to incarcerate Donald Trump.
It does seem true. Progressives do seem oddly excited about the premise of Donald Trump behind bars; the idea that one of the multiple investigations into Trump’s conduct could land the former president in prison has been percolating for years, perhaps even before Trump was elected.
Really, Trump in prison is like the ultimate liberal fantasy. Which would be fine and unremarkable (you may remember Donald Trump himself wanting to lock up Hillary Clinton) if the progressive wing of the Democratic Party were not simultaneously advocating for criminal justice reforms that reduced reliance on incarceration as a form of punishment.
“It’s all hypothetical at this point,” Sarat wrote, “but some of the rhetoric we’re seeing from progressives is striking … Sentencing criminals to substantial prison time or to die in prison is usually not high on the agenda of progressives. Yet some seem prepared to carve out an exception for Trump. Even more problematic is the assumption that there can be no accountability without prison time, no matter the crime, especially among those who have long advocated for alternatives to incarceration.”
Undermining an important position
In advocating for Trump to be incarcerated, progressives weaken their anti-prison position – a shame given the importance of the position.
Criminal justice reform is one of the more redeemable aspects of the progressive agenda. The criminal justice system has become over-reliant on incarceration. America’s incarceration rate rose sharply over the last few decades; today, nearly two million people live behind bars at any given time – meaning the US has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Granted, some of America’s prisoners deserve to be behind bars and should not be allowed to mix freely with the general population. But the downsides of over-incarcerating – which include a failure to prevent crime, corollary negative economic impacts, and a massive burden on the taxpayer to fund a sprawling prison system – are well documented. So, progressives are onto something when they say we should be putting fewer people in prison for shorter periods.
But, as in so many respects, Trump seems to have clouded left-wing judgment with respect to the concept of prison. While I don’t have trouble imagining Trump is in fact corrupt, he’s not really the sort of guy I believe needs to be locked away. Removing Trump from the general population doesn’t make the general population any safer. Will incarcerating Trump deter the next guy from making a hush money payment to a porn star? I’m not too worried about that either.
If you want to push for Trump to be barred from running for public office again, or something like that, go for it. If you want to push for Trump to be hit with some hefty financial fines, go for it. But pushing for Trump to be locked away – at the taxpayers’ expense – doesn’t make much sense to me. I don’t want to subsidize Trump’s room and board, nor do I believe Trump has done anything so heinous as to justify depriving him of his most basic liberties.
When assessing Trump and the consequences of his actions, progressives should be more principled.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.