Jeff Sessions Seeks to Revive War on Drugs

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) speaks at an event in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

President Donald Trump deemed himself the “law and order” president, taking a “tough on crime” stance emphasized during his inaugural address in January that described the current state of America as a dystopian society.

Trump’s newly appointed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was highly contested, is promoting his agenda by potentially seeking to turn back the hands of time and revisit mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately affected Blacks and Latinos during the 1980s and ’90s.

“Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” the attorney general said in a speech to law enforcement officials in Richmond, Va., last month.

Sessions has yet to announce his specific plans, but he and Steven H. Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, now in the inner circle of the Justice Department, have an agenda to undo the criminal justice reforms of former President Obama’s administration.

“Law enforcement officials say that Sessions and Cook are preparing a plan to prosecute more drug and gun cases and pursue mandatory minimum sentences,” according to The Washington Post.

“The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ’90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.”

Deputy Director of the Drug Policy Alliance Michael Collins called Sessions’ stance on sentencing and enforcement as a response to the opioid epidemic “deeply disconcerting.”

Collins told Business Insider that Sessions “appears intent on taking us back to the 1980s with his drug war rhetoric. Locking up more people exacerbates the problem.”

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

The Obama administration sought to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing policies that resulted in prolonged prison terms for thousands of non-violent offenders. A bipartisan coalition in Congress also worked together to shift away from harsh justice policies in states across the country.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a sprawling criminal justice bill, contributed to the U.S. comprising approximately 25 percent of the world’s prison population — despite representing about 5 percent of the world’s total population.

For example, the bill created mandatory crack violations that were much harsher than those for powder cocaine, even though the two drugs are molecularly similar. The possession of more than five grams of crack is a felony punishable by at least five years in prison — the same as the conviction of a drug offense involving 500 grams of powder cocaine.

Most offenders sentenced under the crack provisions are Black and Latino, whereas white offenders make up a much higher portion of those convicted for powder cocaine offenses.

According to the Center for American Progress:

– People of color are significantly overrepresented in the U.S. prison population, making up more than 60 percent of the people behind bars. Despite being only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population, 40 percent of those who are incarcerated are Black.

– Latinos represent 16 percent of the overall population but 19 percent of those who are incarcerated.

– Whites make up 64 percent of the overall population but account for only 39 percent of those who are incarcerated.

Violent Crime Rate

In his remarks to law enforcement officials on March 15 Sessions said, “Overall, crime rates in our country remain near historic lows,” which he alluded parallels higher incarceration rates.

However, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a landmark 2012 report on the American prison system, which concluded that “‘on balance,’ higher incarceration rates had a ‘modest’ effect on the decline [of violent crimes],” according to The Atlantic.

“But [researchers] also cautioned that a lack of clear evidence means any benefits were ‘unlikely to have been large.’

“Most offenders reach a point when they age out of criminal behavior, limiting the utility of mandatory minimum sentencing. For this reason, the academy’s report concluded lengthy prison sentences are ‘ineffective as a crime-control measure’ in virtually all circumstances. Some research even suggests harsh prison conditions could make inmates more likely to reoffend.”

Former U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch participated in a national Community Policing Tour, in which she visited police departments around the county. Law enforcement shifted to new models that emphasized community partnerships over mass arrests.

Sessions said there needs to be a crack down on a “dangerous new trend” in America that requires a tough response. Major cities saw about a 3 percent increase in violent crimes in 2015 than the year before, according to a Pew Research Center report published in February.

But violent crime in the U.S. as a whole has fallen sharply over the past 25 years.

“Using the FBI numbers, the rate fell 50 percent between 1993 and 2015, the most recent full year available. Using the BJS data, the rate fell by 77 percent during that span,” according to Pew.

An opinion survey also found that Americans believe crime is up, even when the data show it is down.

Federal Government and Private Prisons

In February, Sessions cancelled former Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates’ directive launched in August that sought to end the government’s contracts with private prisons.

“The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system,” Sessions wrote in his memo reversing Yates’ actions.

It seems the U.S. attorney general may be anticipating an increase in the prison population due to a desired harder stance on crime. In the process, private prisons will again thrive financially. The largest publicly traded prison providers, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, earned a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue when the private federal prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010.

Attempt to Stop Policing Overhauls in Baltimore

U.S. District Judge James Bredar on Friday rejected the Justice Department’s attempt to delay, and perhaps destroy, an agreement to reform Baltimore’s struggling police department. The Justice Department said the agreement could hinder efforts to fight crime in Maryland’s largest city.

But both the police chief and the mayor support the agreement. Reform includes changes in training and the use of force after officers were found to have routinely harassed minorities.

Bredar wrote that the 227-page decree, written toward the end of the Obama administration, was “comprehensive, detailed, and precise” and served the public interest. The decree won approval two years after the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died while in Baltimore police custody.

In August, the Justice Department released a report stating it “found reasonable cause to believe that the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution as well as federal anti-discrimination laws.”