Fact-Checking Sessions’ Opening Remarks: Crime, Violent Crime, and Prosecutions

Senator Jeff Sessions will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for hearings on his nomination as the next U.S. Attorney General. Here's a fact-check of his key statements.

January 10, 2017

Today, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Al.) will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for hearings on his nomination as the next U.S. Attorney General. Sessions’s opening remarks will focus on crime and his time as a federal prosecutor. See below for a fact-check of key statements:

1. “I am very concerned, however, that the recent jump in the violent crime and murder rates are not anomalies, but the beginning of a dangerous trend that could reverse the hard won gains that have made America a safer and more prosperous place. The latest official FBI statistics show that all crime increased nearly 4 percent from 2014 to 2015 with murders increasing nearly 11 percent—the largest single year increase since 1971. . . .These trends cannot continue. It is a fundamental civil right to be safe in your home and your community.”

Fact:   These remarks seem to reference a “war on crime” era campaign ad by President Nixon. But they misstate official data. Crime remained stable between 2014 and 2015, and in fact continued to do so through 2016. According to the FBI, between 2014 and 2015, the number of overall crimes fell by 1.8 percent, and the rate of overall crime fell by 2.6 percent, marking the fourteenth year in a row that the crime rate has decreased. Between 2015 and 2016, the crime rate in the 30 largest cities remained almost unchanged, rising by 0.3 percent.

According to FBI data, the national murder rate increased by 10 percent in 2015. But just four cities accounted for 20 percent of that change. In a 2015 study of the 30 largest cities, three cities accounted for more than half of the increase in murders: Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. In 2016, Chicago alone accounted for almost half of the increase.

In brief, murder increases have been concentrated in some cities, and are serious problems that must be addressed. But the data do not reflect any sort of national murder wave. Moreover, since the murder rate remains near historic lows, percentage increases overstate an increase in numbers of murders.

2. “In 2016, there were 4,368 shooting victims in Chicago. In Baltimore, homicides reached the second highest per-capita rate ever.”

Fact:   Violence in Chicago is a cause for concern. In 2016, Chicago accounted for almost half the national increase in murder. In 2015, Baltimore also saw a marked increase of murders, which then decreased in 2016. Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington were responsible for over half the national increase in murders in 2015. These cities distorted the national murder average for those years. These outliers are just that. They cannot be relied on as evidence of a national murder wave.

3. “In my over 14 years in the Department of Justice, I tried cases of nearly every kind—drug trafficking, firearms, and other violent crimes, significant public corruption cases, financial wrongdoing, civil rights violations, environmental violations, and hate crimes. Protecting the people of this country from crime, and especially from violent crime, is the high calling of the men and women of the Department of Justice.”

Fact:   Federal data show that during Sessions’s time as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, more than 40 percent of his convictions were for drug crimes, double the rate of other Alabama federal prosecutors. Violent crimes made up just 3.2 percent of Sessions’s convictions. Sessions also sought harsher prison sentences in drug cases, reflecting a disproportionate focus on drugs rather than violent crime. See more in this analysis here.

Read the Brennan Center’s analyses of crime data for 2015 and 2016.

(Photo: Flickr.com/ryanjreilly)