A 1990s mugging and the roots of Donald Trump’s hardline criminal justice views

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter

 

Donald Trump waves to staff members of the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort as they cheer him on before the grand opening ceremonies in Atlantic City, N.J., in April 1990. Trump attended the gala with his mother, Mary; his father, Fred; and his sister Maryanne Trump Barry. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

In 1991, Donald Trump’s mother was walking to a nearby bakery in Queens to pick up a crumb cake when a teenager snatched her purse and threw her to the ground.

Sixteen-year-old Paul LoCasto was later sentenced to three to nine years in prison for the crime, which left Mary Trump, then 79, with permanent damage to her sight and hearing and a brain hemorrhage.

Trump described the incident in his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” the only time the presumptive Republican nominee has laid out his vision for the nation’s criminal justice system in detail.

Trump wrote that many families would have gathered around and sought grief counseling after such a tragedy. “But in my family we believe in going the extra mile,” he wrote, adding that his brother contacted the judge in the case and made sure to attend the trial to encourage the maximum punishment possible. “The Trumps believe in getting even.”

Trump’s eye-for-an-eye criminal justice beliefs, forged in crime-filled New York in the 1980s and ’90s, are now largely out of step with the Republican Party. Thirty years after skyrocketing urban violence and drug use sparked politicians to impose longer and longer sentences for drug crimes, America now incarcerates a higher rate of its population than any other country in the world, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars a year. The GOP has led bipartisan efforts in more than a dozen states and in Congress to roll back stiff mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes. At the convention in Cleveland, the party will vote on a policy plank to reduce the U.S. prison population.

Advocates for criminal justice reform are trying to convince Trump to update his views now that he’s the presumptive nominee. They’re hopeful that Trump’s beliefs are more malleable than they may seem at first glance, especially since many politicians, including Hillary Clinton, were staunchly tough on crime in the ’90s until more recently embracing reform.

“The fact that he has this CEO mentality will actually work in our favor,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network advocacy group. “Once he sees the abysmal recidivism rate and how much money we’re spending on the criminal justice system, I think he’ll say to the system, ‘You’re fired.’”

Others see hope in his recent relative silence on the topic. “I don’t feel like we have that much knowledge of what his current opinions are,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “If Hillary Clinton had said nothing in the last year and a half and we went back and looked at her record, we would think she was against reform.”

But as recently as November, Trump explicitly said his views on the topic had not evolved, according to a forthcoming Brennan Center report. “No, I’m tough on crime,” he said when asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” if he was convinced by the conservative arguments to reform the system. “I’m tough on crime, and we have to stop crime. You look at what’s going on in the inner cities right now, it’s unbelievable.”

In his 2000 book, Trump explicitly rejected the arguments of criminal justice reformers — some of whom he counted among his friends — as elitist and naive. “They don’t like building more prisons. They believe, at the bottom of their hearts, that we put too many criminals in jail. It’s an embarrassment to them,” he wrote.

“I like to remind these friends that they would be singing a different tune if they didn’t have a doorman downstairs,” he wrote.

A couple of years before Trump’s mother was mugged, the real estate mogul became interested in the Central Park Five case. Five teenagers were accused of the rape and brutal beating of a female jogger in 1989. After the crime, Trump took a full-page ad out in four newspapers titled, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY! BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” More than 20 years later, the five men were released and their convictions vacated after another man confessed to the rape and a DNA test confirmed his story. The city settled with the men over their false convictions and collective 40 years in jail, a move Trump objected to in an op-ed. “These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels,” he wrote in 2014. But the case is now widely seen as an example of how trumped-up fears about violent crime can ruin young lives.

Occasionally, Trump’s statements in support of tough crime laws have been racially tinged. In 2013 he wrote on Twitter, “Sadly, the overwhelming amount of violent crime in our major cities is committed by blacks and hispanics-a tough subject-must be discussed.” (His mother’s mugger in 1991 was white.) He has also claimed several times that crime is going up nationwide, an assertion that criminal justice experts dispute, citing data that show crime spikes have been localized in a few big cities. (He also recently told a reporter that Brooklyn is the most dangerous place in the world that he has visited, which doesn’t appear to take into account changes in crime trends that have placed New York among the safer major cities in the country.) In March, Trump called for police to arrest protesters at his rallies so that criminal records would “ruin the rest of their lives,” according to the Brennan Center analysis.

Trump consistently voices support for law enforcement (he called police “the most mistreated people in this country” at a GOP debate), and his sister Maryanne Trump Barry was a prosecutor before she became a judge. Advocates have approached him via Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a group of former judges, police chiefs and prosecutors who support reform.

Ronal Serpas, a former police chief and the head of the group, said he spent a while talking to Trump’s campaign about why many in law enforcement want to reform the system to focus on violent criminals. He talked to the campaign about how more than half of the people in jail have a mental illness. “They should be being seen by medical professionals, not by police officers,” Serpas said. “We’re not a soft-on-crime group of people.”

“Moving forward, we have got to show Mr. Trump the enormous support we’ve been able to generate from law enforcement, ” Harris of the U.S. Justice Action Network said.

Advocates also see hope in Trump’s softer comments on marijuana. In August, again on MSNBC, Trump said drug dealers “have to be looked at very strongly,” but that it’s a complicated issue because of some states legalizing marijuana. “That’s a very tough subject nowadays,” he said. He has also expressed support for drug treatment facilities.

It also seems likely that Trump will pick a conservative with a clearer stance on criminal justice reform to be his vice president. Trump’s campaign has hinted it will pick someone with federal electoral experience, and many on the rumored short list are strong supporters of criminal justice reform. “Certainly if it’s Newt Gingrich — that’s a guy who advocates for cutting 50 percent of the prison population. That would be a coup for us,” Harris said.