Photo: Alex Brandon /Associated Press
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ effort to return federal drug policy to a harsh and unsuccessful past is in full swing.
Sessions might as well invest Department of Justice funds in a time machine because his return to a scorched-earth approach on drugs will waste a mountain of tax dollars on ineffective prosecutions and dramatic increases in incarceration expenses.
The former Alabama senator recently sent a memorandum to federal prosecutors instructing them to “charge and pursue the most serious readily provable offense.” Sessions specifically noted that his directive includes offenses with mandatory minimum sentences.
Sessions’ move rolls back former Attorney General Eric Holder’s directive that prosecutors avoid listing specific drug amounts in charges to prevent mandatory minimum sentences from taking effect.
Holder, President Barack Obama’s first attorney general, issued his guidelines in 2013.
Sessions’ reversal of the policy “is not tough on crime,” Holder said in a prepared statement. “It is dumb on crime.”
Holder added, “This absurd reversal is driven by voices who have not only been discredited, but until now have been relegated to the fringes of the debate.”
Justice Department data, Holder noted, show that under his policy, fewer indictments that would carry mandatory minimum sentences were handed down, but prosecutions of high-level defendants have increased.
Sessions argued that he was “unhandcuffing” prosecutors, but Holder’s approach actually gave them more freedom to focus on the biggest offenders.
Sessions’ policy will siphon DOJ funds from high-level prosecutions to pay for mass incarceration, Holder maintained.
Some 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated at all government levels, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Almost 200,000 of those are in federal prisons. Since 2007, the imprisonment rate dropped 9.5 percent.
Of course, Sessions’ approach is not surprising. He successfully fought in 2016 to block bipartisan criminal justice legislation that would have reduced mandatory minimum sentences.
But Sessions is a perfect fit for the Trump administration. President Donald Trump exaggerated America’s crime problem in his 2016 campaign. As the Brennan Center said, Trump used “archaic rhetoric and misleading or false crime statistics.”
A Brennan Center report called “Crime Trends: 1990-2016” found that “despite localized increases in some places, the overall crime rate is half of what it was in 1991.”
The researchers added, “The urban crime rate has dropped about 63.9 percent in that same time frame.”
Trump was particularly focused on the murder rate, and Sessions, too, has cited a dramatic increase in the U.S. murder rate. But the Brennan Center stated, “Chicago, for example, is projected to account for about half of the 2016 murder rate increase.”
For the vast majority of Americans, it is safe to walk your dog tonight — even if your next-door neighbor smokes marijuana.
“Americans today are safer than they have been at almost any time for the past 25 years,” the Brennan researchers wrote.
When Trump nominated Sessions as attorney general, the writing was on the wall. The war on drugs is back in full swing — at least it is back at the DOJ.
On March 31, Sessions ordered a review of all consent decrees between local police departments and the DOJ, which means the federal government may drop agreements that enforce better behavior on police departments with a history of civil rights violations.
The attorney general also has vowed a major crackdown on unauthorized immigration.
And Sessions stands in opposition to the growing American trend to allow medical and recreational marijuana use.
Sessions perfectly embodies Trumpian change in the criminal justice arena. The man from Alabama is a retro wrecking ball who is hellbent on turning back the clock to a more oppressive time in America.