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May 23, 2017

"How Far Can Jeff Sessions Take His Crime War?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this astute New Republic piece by David Dagan that provides lots of useful context, old and new, for the work and rhetoric coming from AG Jeff Sessions and Prez Donald Trump.  Here are some extended excerpts (with emphasis in the original):

In fact, the last two years have seen worrying increases in the nation’s violent-crime rate, and some American cities have developed a full-blown homicide crisis.  That is a serious problem anybody who cares about criminal justice should be watching closely.  But it does not justify the Sessions-Trump imagery of marauding gangsters terrorizing an entire nation.  Overall, the United States today remains a much safer country than it was 30 years ago.

So the attorney general of 2017 faces a dramatically different climate than the unknown Alabama prosecutor of 1982. Even conservatives are now leading criminal-justice-reform efforts in several red states.  But reformers must keep their guard up.  Because for Sessions, crime is an inherently polarizing issue — and that’s the best news for Republicans who want to crack down.  “We should relish the fact that there will be opposition,” Sessions wrote back in 1982. “We want opposition because it defines who we are and who they are. The bigger the confrontation, the clearer the definition.”...

Sentences will get longer as a result of the May 10 charging memorandum.  But the order may have a greater effect that isn’t so obvious: It may result in not only longer sentences, but more cases being brought, period.  In the last five years of the Obama administration, the number of defendants charged in federal cases plummeted from about 103,000 to about 77,500, the lowest number since 1998.  A number of factors drove that decline, including a hiring freeze that reduced DOJ’s bandwidth.  But John Walsh, who served as U.S. Attorney for Colorado in the Obama administration, says Holder’s policy requiring prosecutors to justify the use of mandatory minimum sentences was also a contributing factor: The rule forced prosecutors to hone in on the worst offenders.  That is now history....

Fortunately, the federal government has limited influence over the calamity of mass incarceration.  The feds do operate the nation’s largest prison system, but that still accounts for only 10.5 percent of people incarcerated in the U.S.  Otherwise, it’s up to the states (with roughly 1.2 million prisoners) and counties (roughly 600,000 jail inmates.)

The only way that Sessions and Trump can really change a political culture that has moved away from the tough-on-crime consensus of the 1980s and 1990s is to lead a public law and order crusade.  The campaign started it, but there’s a long way to go — and a lot of fear-mongering to do — to shift the tide.  Democrats now largely condemn the prison policies they once went along with.  Republicans are more circumspect, but the conservative movement for prison reform has achieved impressive incarceration reductions in some bright-red states.

Despite fears that state and local politicians would be scared off by the tough talk coming out of Washington, the momentum for reform has continued through the beginning of the Trump presidency. “So far, we haven’t seen much of an impact at all,” said Adam Gelb, who runs a unit of the Pew Charitable Trusts that advises states on criminal-justice reform.  “States have built up a strong head of steam, with broad support across the political spectrum for policies that work better and cost less.”

The kinds of states you’d imagine getting behind Sessions’s new “law and order” campaign are actually among those getting behind progressive reforms.  Louisiana is on track to pass a plan that could cut its prison population 10 percent over a decade — probably not enough to shed its status as the nation’s leading per-capita jailer, but significant progress nonetheless.  Utah approved a big juvenile-justice reform in April.  The same month, North Dakota legislators voted to favor probation over prison for low-level felonies, among other changes.  Most surprising, Alabama is poised to restore voting rights for thousands of felons.

The America of 2017 is much less hospitable to a crime war than the America of 1982.  The fact that, despite recent increases, crime remains way down makes it harder to stir up panic than it was back in the 1980s and 1990s.  The rural dimension of the opioid epidemic has contributed to a new understanding of drugs as a problem of public health. Years of activism and aggressive reporting on the ravages of mass incarceration are also beginning to register in the public conscience, especially among millennials to whom the excesses of the past look simply bizarre....

But as Sessions realized years ago, the mix of race, drugs, and crime is a powerful force in American politics.  The fact that Sessions’s sentencing memo was met with deafening silence from Republican members of Congress suggests that spines on Capitol Hill remain as gelatinous on this issue as any other involving the administration.  The onus is not entirely on conservatives, though.  Liberals should do more than simply bat down Sessions’s inaccurate portrayal of the whole country as being in the grips of a violent-crime meltdown.  They should emphasize that the recent uptick in violence is worrying, that some American cities are indeed having a crisis-level problem — and that Sessions has absolutely no idea what to do about this.

We know much more than we used to about fighting crime.  Prisons surely play a role, but we’ve long ago reached the point of diminishing returns from warehousing people.  If Donald Trump cares about Chicago as much as he tweets about it, liberals should argue, then rather than blowing the city off, he would deploy federal money to support policing and violence-prevention programs that work, there and in other high-homicide towns.

If reformers play their cards right, Sessions may ultimately find that the crime war whose terms he understood so well as a young man has been redefined in ways he can no longer grasp.

May 23, 2017 at 09:59 AM | Permalink

Comments

I suggested to someone starting a business in Pennsylvania, as marijuana dispensaries start to open. Money storage. It is likely marijuana will stay illegal for another 8 years. Dispensaries will not be able to use the banking system. They will need money self storage spaces. So start one of those Storage Wars places, but with safes. One has to ask if safety deposit boxes in banks are permissible to store marijuana money.

The conflict of laws in the area of marijuana is staggering, but great for the lawyer profession. I think Sessions is doing that on purpose to generate lawyer jobs.

Posted by: David Behar | May 23, 2017 1:50:36 PM

Our Chief Law Enforcement Office is a liar and Russian shill, along with the liar in chief. He "forgot" to list his contacts with Russia on his security-clearance form!
Lock him up in the cell next to Trump, Manafort, Kushnera, and Flynn.

Posted by: anon1 | May 25, 2017 9:29:21 AM

Amen to anon1's comment above.

Posted by: Dave from Texas | May 25, 2017 10:15:51 AM

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