In a matter of two weeks, U.S. Attorney General Jeff B. Sessions has announced a proposed reversal on Obama-era policy to curb and monitor abusive police conduct, and Sessions appears to support resurrecting the War on Drugs, which drove up the incarceration of poor and Black people.
Civil rights activists have begun to express concern about Session’s ordering Justice Department officials to review all of the reform agreements with over 20 abusive police departments, including Baltimore.
Baltimore came under the scrutiny of the DOJ after the death of Freddie Gray, who was injured while being transported by police officers to jail. His death sparked riots in the city.
Sessions said his decision is an effort to assure that the decrees do not work against the Trump Administration’s goals of supporting the ability of police officers to effectively fight crime in the streets.
Another Obama Administration policy under threat was led by former Attorney General Eric Holder to reduce harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. It won support not only from liberal activists but conservatives. Both wanted to reduce the cost and rate of incarceration and the effect of long mandatory minimum prison sentences.
President Obama commuted the sentences of thousands of non-violent federal prisoners who were caught up in the War on Drugs related to crack cocaine from the early 1980s until the early 2000s.
But Steven H. Cook, a former police officer and federal prosecutor based in Knoxville, Tenn., supported the harsh law enforcement policies and the increase in incarceration of many poor Black and Hispanic men, especially.
“The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed,” Cook said at a criminal justice panel at The Washington Post in 2016.
The Obama administration ignored Cook, who was president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. Sessions recently hired him as one of his top lieutenants.
Sessions has not announced any new and specific policy changes related to these two issues, yet.
But Cook’s hiring and elevation to a top DOJ post may be viewed as a sign that Obama-era reforms are threatened. If so, there may be increases in prosecutions of drug cases and mandatory minimum sentences could be revived.
The DOJ cites the rise in street homicides in Chicago as an example to explain the policy reversals.
“Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” Sessions said to law enforcement officials in a speech in Richmond last month. “It will destroy your life.”
Sentencing reform advocates say the tough crime policies had a detrimental impact. The United States incarcerated people at a rate higher than any other country — 25 percent of the world’s prisoners at a cost of $80 billion a year.
The nation’s jail population jumped from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2015, filled with mostly Black men given lengthy prison sentences – 10 or 20 years, sometimes life without parole for first time drug offenses.
During his tenure at DOJ, Holder told federal prosecutors, in an effort to make punishments more fairly fit the crime, to stop charging low-level nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that imposed severe mandatory sentences. He called his strategy, outlined in an August 2013 report, “Smart on Crime.”
Bobby N. Vassar is a former Chief Counsel for the U.S. House Democrats from 1999 to 2013. He also served as Senior Counsel for and Legislative Director to U.S. Congressman Robert C. Scott of Virginia, a strong advocate of the Obama’s reform efforts.
Vassar also was Chairman of the Virginia Pardon and Parole Board from 1982-87 during the first chapter of the nation’s War on Drugs.
“It seems (Cook and Sessions) are fixated on ideas not based on any kind of science … evidence or fact-based policy,” said Vassar. “This is a knee jerk reaction that African-Americans would do anything to avoid one day in jail.”
Vassar said the for-profit prison industry is salivating at the profits it will make from re-opening many of its units and money the DOJ will spend to house increasing number of inmates.
Vassar said Sessions’ policy may be on a collision course with the growing epidemic of opioid addiction by young Whites. He said White voters are complaining about the issue vehemently at lawmakers’ town hall meetings.
During the nation’s crack cocaine explosions, Blacks who were drug-addicted or distributed crack cocaine were jailed. Vassar wonders if the Sessions’ DOJ will see alternatives to jailing large number of opioid-addicted Whites.
Congressman Scott echoed Vassar’s sentiments when he said rehabilitation and not incarceration is the best resolution to the nation’s drug’s problem.
Scott said while other industrialized countries jail 200 persons per 200,000 people a year, the United States jails 500 to 700 per 200,000.
He said anything over 400 per 200,000 is counterproductive because it is expensive, jails parents, creates employment barriers, and is discriminatory toward minorities.
Scott said President Obama reduced and commuted the sentences of 1,927 low level drug offenders who were serving time and now, Cook “wants to jail more” instead of reducing incarceration.
Scott called mandatory minimum sentences ineffective and wasteful.
He said the policies Sessions is proposing poll well to the GOP’s base and are good “sounds bites” but do nothing to reduce crime.