Analysis: Sen. Jeff Sessions’s Record on Criminal Justice

January 6, 2017

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This analysis provides a brief summary of Sen. Jeff Sessions’s past statements, votes, and practices relating to criminal justice. Specifically, this analysis finds that:

  • Sen. Sessions opposes efforts to reduce unnecessarily long federal prison sentences for nonviolent crimes, despite a consensus for reform even within his own party. In 2016, he personally blocked the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bipartisan effort spearheaded by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and supported by law enforcement leadership. As Attorney General, Sen. Sessions could stall current congressional efforts to pass this legislation to recalibrate federal sentencing laws.
  • Drug convictions made up 40 percent of Sen. Sessions’s convictions when he served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama — double the rate of other Alabama federal prosecutors. Today, state and federal law enforcement officers have begun to focus resources on violent crime, and away from archaic drug war policies. But Sen. Sessions continues to oppose any attempts to legalize marijuana and any reduction in drug sentences. As Attorney General, Sen. Sessions could direct federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest penalties possible for even low-level drug offenses, a step backward from Republican-supported efforts to modernize criminal justice policy.
  • Unlike many Republican legislators, Sen. Sessions supports the use of “civil asset forfeiture,” which allows police to confiscate property from people who may not even be accused of a crime. Sen. Sessions could strengthen this practice at the federal level, or vocally oppose any congressional efforts to end it.
  • The Justice Department has brought much-needed oversight to troubled police departments, especially those criticized for targeting or using excessive force on communities of color. Sen. Sessions is deeply skeptical of federal involvement in state and local affairs, including policing. As Attorney General, he could end or significantly curtail these investigations.
  • Most conservatives support reentry programs to help former prisoners better reintegrate into society, keeping them away from repeat crime. It is unclear whether Sen. Sessions shares his party’s commitment to these recidivism reduction programs. If he does not support them, Sen. Sessions’s Justice Department could end requests to Congress for additional funding, or direct scarce resources away from these programs, potentially driving up the recidivism rate.

In brief, Sen. Sessions appears to subscribe to outdated ideas about criminal justice policy that conservatives, progressives, and law enforcement have come to agree do not help reduce crime and unnecessarily increase the prison population. His views place him at odds with top Republicans and the current cross-partisan movement to reform the justice system. As Attorney General, he could stall or reverse recent federal efforts, and disrupt nationwide momentum on the issue. 

Analysis: Sen. Jeff Sessions’s Record on Criminal Justice