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September 13, 2017

Former US Attorneys lament AG Sessions' charging memo as returning Justice Department to "failed mindset of its past"

This notable new National Review commentary, headlined "On Criminal Justice, Sessions Is Returning DOJ to the Failed Policies of the Past," is authored by Joyce Vance, the former US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, and Carter Stewart, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.  Here are excerpts, with some commentary to follow:

True to form, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has returned the Justice Department to the failed mindset of its past.  In implementing his own tough-on-crime mantra, he has required prosecutors, in virtually all cases, to charge the most serious offenses and ask for the lengthiest prison sentences.

Americans have seen this one-size-fits-all policy in action before. It doesn’t work. Today’s America is often a world where everyone adheres to their confirmed views and there is little exchange of information and ideas across political divides. So, when the rare issue comes along that generates a bipartisan consensus, it should be worth seriously considering.

Criminal-justice reform is one of those issues.  Yet Attorney General Sessions continues to roll back previously instituted changes that were beginning to reduce America’s prison population, the justice system’s costs, and crime.  He is doing so despite the consensus that produced those changes. We should not let this rare opportunity to reform a badly broken criminal-justice system fade away, nor should we permit the consensus on reform to shatter under the consuming cover of national scandal.

Sessions’s charging policy memo, editorials, and planned state tour to push for a crackdown on crime all resemble ineffective and damaging criminal-justice policies that were imposed in 2003. Although those policies’ stated goal was originally to create nationwide uniformity in the justice system, they resulted in the proliferation of questionable prosecutions, and the Bureau of Prisons’ population swelled to its highest level in history, consuming almost one-third of the Department of Justice’s annual budget. One side effect of this fiasco that lingers today is the broken relationship between police departments and the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. The attorney general is aggravating that tension with his recent revival of adoptive forfeiture policies, giving local and state law enforcement a federal benediction to seize the property of suspected criminals. Distrust impedes community cooperation with law enforcement, and increased incarceration rates do little to decrease crime.

The excessive reliance on arrests and extended incarceration was unsustainable, it disparately impacted racial minorities and the poor, and it had a negligible impact on public safety.  People leaving prison are too often unable to find jobs because of their criminal records, and two-thirds of them re-offend within three years. It has become obvious that we must do more than just incarcerate people to make our communities safer.

That’s why, in 2013, DOJ promulgated the “Smart on Crime” initiative, which returned charging discretion to federal prosecutors and directed them to use a three-pronged approach: implement priorities for prosecuting the most serious crimes, advance prevention programs, and develop strategies to help people successfully re-enter the community after they’ve served their time. At its core, this approach recognized that each criminal defendant is a person, often with families and friends who care deeply about them....

“Tough on crime” strategies that rely on lengthy prison sentences and property seizure may permit politicians to sharpen their image in the eyes of voters, but they run afoul of justice and fail to deliver results. At the same time DOJ was modernizing its criminal-justice polices, many states were doing so as well.  Since 2007, 23 states have reformed their sentencing laws to focus law-enforcement resources on the most dangerous crimes. Often, federal law-enforcement officials worked hand in hand with their state and local counterparts to achieve progress. In Alabama, the legislature created a new felony category for the lowest level of drug and property offenses, sending offenders to less expensive and more effective community corrections programs instead of prison.  Ohio eliminated the disparity in criminal penalties between crack and powder cocaine offenses and raised the threshold requirements for felony-theft sentencing. As a result of similar policies, Texas has closed three prisons since 2005 and still enjoyed a 29 percent drop in crime. Georgia and North Carolina have adopted justice-reinvestment programs and had similar success.

As former U.S. Attorneys, we know firsthand that families across our country care about the safety of their communities above all else. We worked hand in hand with law enforcement, members of the community, and victims of crime to pursue those individuals who were the most dangerous. But we also know that an approach that uniformly imposes the harshest penalties on everyone risks damaging community trust and cooperation for generations, jeopardizing safety as a whole. Rehashing tough-on-crime policies based on disproved assumptions is a recipe for failure. The Department of Justice should move forward with its Smart on Crime public-safety and criminal-justice policies, using a proven approach that has reduced prison populations, costs, and crime in states that have implemented it. Justice is about more than just putting people in prison.

This commentary hits many of the themes now common to advocacy for smart-on-crime approaches over tough-on-crime approaches to crime and punishment. But it fails to grapple with the (too simple) reality that nationwide crime rates went down dramatically from 1991 to 2014 when tough-on-crime approaches defined much of the Justice Departments work and that crime rates started moving up significantly not long after DOJ promulgated its "Smart on Crime" initiative. Because of these crime data, AG Sessions and many others likely do not accept the assertion in this commentary that tough-on-crime postures by DOJ have a "negligible impact on public safety." Thanks to prior crime declines and recent crime increases, I think they actually believe tough-on-crime approaches, at least at the federal level, are absolutely essential to public safety.  Put differently, I suspect that AG Sessions now sees smart-on-crime approaches as the "failed mindset" and thus he seems very unlikely to be moved by these kinds of commentaries.

September 13, 2017 at 10:15 AM | Permalink

Comments

What is truly somewhat amazing is that TNR would publish this. Otis must be doing backflips.

Posted by: Fat Bastard | Sep 13, 2017 11:17:23 PM

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