Politics & Policy

Jeff Sessions Is Right to Prioritize the Fight against Violent Crime

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies at a Senate Intelligence Committee meeting, June 13, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The attorney general has given prosecutors the authority to use federal laws, as they are now written, to go after violent offenders.

Earlier this week, our nation’s observation of Constitution Day gave me an opportunity to reflect on the power conferred by our founding document on the executive branch to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” What it means to “faithfully execute” the laws enacted by Congress is, and always has been, a matter where Americans of good faith have different opinions. Recently, some of my former colleagues in the Department of Justice took aim at the manner in which the current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has determined to pursue justice and to “faithfully execute” the law. With the unique perspective that I have acquired as a United States attorney appointed by two presidents of different parties, I beg to differ.

In the autumn of 2014, I met with Attorney General Eric Holder during the appointment process to serve as United States attorney for the district of Utah. Later, in 2016, Attorney General Loretta Lynch appointed me to serve on her advisory committee of select United States attorneys. As a career prosecutor, I found these distinguished public servants to be sincerely committed to the work of the Department of Justice and to the people of the United States. Now, in 2017, I enjoy the privilege to serve yet another attorney general whose qualifications and commitment to serve the interests of justice are unquestionable.

In the Department of Justice, our leaders set the priorities and fashion policies to accomplish those priorities. As the chief law-enforcement official for the nation, Attorney General Sessions sets the course for the department and its law-enforcement partners — just as every one of his predecessors has done. Today, the fight against violent crime in America is among the top priorities of the department. That fight adds to the collective work and effort of various administrations over the course of decades. Law-enforcement professionals have worked tirelessly to beat back violent-crime rates from historic highs to the historic lows that we enjoyed until recently. Despite tremendous progress, the attorney general has identified a troubling development: a nationwide increase in violent-crime rates after years of decline. He has committed to the nation that we will work to ensure that this increase will only be a blip and not a trend in the wrong direction.

In Utah, the rise in violent-crime rates recently has exceeded the national increase. Utah experienced a 13 percent increase in violent crime in 2015, with one particular subset of violent crime — aggravated assaults — increasing by 17 percent that year. Without a doubt, as Attorney General Sessions has repeatedly declared, we have lost ground in the fight against violent crime. The data bear this out, and it rings true in our informal observations. While major cities across the nation have seen significant increases in homicides, in Utah we have experienced a disturbing increase in street-gang violence specifically.

To stop giving any ground to violent offenders, the attorney general outlined a strategy to reassert some of the methods that yielded the hard-earned progress of recent decades with the goal of making this great nation a safer place for all. This strategy is based on the simple premise that when we remove violent offenders from our neighborhoods, our neighborhoods are safer. Accordingly, the attorney general directed federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges supported by the evidence against violent offenders. He has given prosecutors the authority to use federal laws, as they are now written, to go after violent criminals.

Congress enacts laws that provide the charges and penalties that, in its view, are best suited to respond to criminality in the United States. These are the tools prosecutors use to protect the rule of law and public safety. The laws that Congress enacts are the will of the people, and the attorney general has removed the self-imposed limits directed by previous leaders in the enforcement of those laws. Members of the executive branch do not enact the law. We faithfully execute it.

My former colleagues describe a groundswell of bipartisan consensus in criminal-justice reform, and yet the laws of the land remain largely unchanged. Contrary to their claims, it is not a backward step to enforce the law of the land. It is, rather, the faithful execution of the law as envisioned by the Constitution. Executing the laws that Congress enacts does not vest the executive branch with the power to go its own way whenever one of its officials feels that Congress’s laws are no longer wise policy. Indeed, if there is a groundswell of bipartisan support for reform, then the Constitution allows Congress to change the law, but it does not authorize the attorney general to ignore the law by pretending that legislative reform has already transpired.

The attorney general expects federal prosecutors to use existing laws to deliver justice to crime victims, deter violence, and hold offenders accountable.

Within the parameters that Congress has established, the attorney general has extended discretion to prosecutors in the field who are in the best position to apply the principles of justice to particular cases and circumstances. Where unusual circumstances warrant departure from the department’s charging policy, prosecutors are trusted to exercise their best judgment. Otherwise, the attorney general expects federal prosecutors to use existing laws to deliver justice to crime victims, deter violence, and hold offenders accountable.

One feature of the attorney general’s approach to taking on violence in America is the recognition that violent crime is a mixture of various criminal elements — violent offenders are generalists, not specialists. In other words, violent offenders are usually entangled in various kinds of illegal activity at once — drug trafficking, gang activity, organized crime, immigration crime, and the like. These are all areas where the attorney general has directed prosecutors, agents, and officers to focus their efforts.

Moreover, although critics appear silent on these points, Attorney General Sessions has not abandoned legacy efforts of the department. National security, the heroin and opioid epidemic, civil rights, financial fraud, and other important efforts remain top priorities for the department under his leadership, just as they were under prior leadership. In the department, we build upon the good work of our predecessors whose good faith also intended to keep America safe. For example, in Utah we continue to improve our efforts to help offenders successfully reenter the community after having served their time — a priority of the prior administration.

Regardless of political persuasion, good people dedicate their lives to doing the good work of the Department of Justice. They strive to make their communities safer. They do their best to make good on the Constitution’s promise that the laws of the land should and will be faithfully executed. Attorney General Sessions has made enforcing the existing laws the key to preventing violent criminals from regaining even an inch of hard-fought ground. This approach to faithfully executing the laws of the United States is one with which I wholeheartedly agree.

— John W. Huber serves as United States attorney for the district of Utah. President Obama appointed him to that position in 2015, and President Trump reappointed him in 2017. The United States Senate unanimously confirmed each appointment.

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