Politics & Policy

On Criminal Justice, Sessions Is Returning DOJ to the Failed Policies of the Past

Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
The attorney general’s tough-on-crime mantra may play well politically, but it won’t fix the problems that plague our justice system.

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. Nothing brought this home to us more than the opportunity to work with our friend, Daryl Atkinson, who was hired as the first DOJ re-entry fellow.

When Daryl was barely out of high school, he was convicted of a non-violent drug offense, and spent time in Alabama’s prisons. He is now an accomplished lawyer, a loving husband, and a wonderful father to two children. His outstanding legal work was essential to developing strategies that made it possible for more people to succeed as law-abiding citizens when they returned to the community from prison. The only difference between him and those he left behind in prison? His parents made his education and success a priority when he was released, he says, and this removed the financial struggles that make re-entry difficult for so many others.

“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.

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