Justice Update: Jeff Sessions’s Outdated Views on Criminal Justice

January 18, 2017

Jeff Sessions’s Criminal Justice Record Shows Outdated Views

Donald Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), faced tough questions and comments on criminal justice at his confirmation hearings January 10 and 11.

Sen. Chris Coons (D–Del.) asked Sessions to explain why he has “steadfastly opposed” bipartisan sentencing reform since Coons joined the Senate six years ago. Sessions said he offered legislation in 2001 to reduce sentencing guidelines which was rejected by the Bush Justice Department, but that the “rise in crime” — which has been debunked — combined with shorter sentence lengths makes him want to slow down.  

A Brennan Center analysis, released before the hearing, detailed Sessions’s support for archaic, tough-on-crime policies, including the senator’s efforts to torpedo bipartisan, Republican-led sentencing reform legislation, as Coons mentioned. Sessions has also expressed skepticism of federal oversight of troubled police departments, and aggressively pursued drug convictions as U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.

“Sessions appears to subscribe to outdated ideas about criminal justice policy that conservatives, progressives, and law enforcement have come to agree do not help reduce crime and unnecessarily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,” wrote Ames Grawert.

His actions on sentencing reform in particular “should give all Americans pause,” Grawert said in an op-ed for TIME

Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) voiced concern, taking the unusual step of testifying against Sessions at the hearing. Booker said his colleague’s record “indicates that we cannot count on him to support state and national efforts toward bringing justice to the justice system.”

The Brennan Center also fact-checked Sessions’s opening remarks at his confirmation hearing, finding his statements on crime — including the claim that FBI statistics show overall crime rising 4 percent from 2014 to 2015 — factually misleading.

“Crime remained stable between 2014 and 2015, and in fact continued to do so through 2016,” it said. “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 14th year in a row that the crime rate has decreased.”

Sessions’s opening remarks echo Trump’s rhetoric on crime throughout and after the campaign. Over the weekend, for example, Trump called Atlanta “crime infested” while criticizing the district of Rep. John Lewis (D–Ga.). A Brennan Center fact check of those remarks found them inaccurate.

“During Lewis’s tenure, the violent crime has plummeted to less than half of what is was when he entered office in 1987,” James Cullen wrote.

Read more on Sessions in The NationThe AtlanticThe GuardianThinkProgressThe Hill, and Mic.

Overall Crime Rate Near Historic Lows, Prison Population Declines

Year-end roundups of 2016 crime numbers continue, showing that the overall crime rate remains near historic lows but the murder rate is up, driven by Chicago.

“While the nation's murder rate rose 14 percent — almost half the increase is attributable to Chicago alone,” wrote Alan Neuhauser in U.S. News & World Report. “Overall the nation’s crime rate remains near historic lows.”

Read more about Chicago in two pieces from The Washington Post.

The total incarceration rate in America also continues to fall. New numbers released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate the number of people behind bars is the lowest it’s been in nearly 20 years, declining by a rate of 2.9 percent in 2015. James Cullen has more.  

A Brennan Center report released in December argues that number could be even lower. How Many American’s Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated? found nearly 40 percent of people behind bars are there without a compelling public safety reason. The report was featured in a New York Times editorial Christmas Day. Read more from The Washington Post and Vox.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen also examined how to reform private prisons in a long-form piece for Vox, previewing her upcoming book on the topic.

Research Roundup

  • As his presidency draws to a close, President Barack Obama penned an article in the Harvard Law Review on the president’s role in charting the course of the U.S. justice system. He laid out the urgent case for reform, actions the U.S. president could take to drive change at the federal, state, and local level, and highlighted the broad support behind proposed reforms that could be completed in the short-term. The article cites Brennan Center publications including Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal JusticeReducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Jails, and The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act. It also sources an event President Obama had with Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, as well as a letter spearheaded by the group showing law enforcement’s support of sentencing reform.
  • President Obama issued 209 commutations Tuesday, bringing the total during his presidency to 1,385. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) also issued 100 conditional pardons in December. Anthony Papa, who received one of Cuomo’s pardons, wrote about his experience in AlterNet. Criminal justice reform advocate and philanthropist Daniel Loeb played a key role in securing the pardon.
  • On any given day in 2015, there were 558 people incarcerated in the New Orleans City jail for unpaid fines or fees or because they could not afford bail, according to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice. This cost the city $6.4 million in jail stays — almost $2 million more than they collected in revenue.
  • A new fact sheet published by Pew Charitable Trusts finds that crime rates fell faster in states that reduced their prison population from 2010 to 2015. In the 10 states with the largest imprisonment declines, the crime rate fell an average of 14.4 percent, compared with 8.1 percent in the 10 states with the biggest growth in imprisonment.