Justice Update: Will Sessions Renew the War on Drugs?

March 23, 2017

Will Sessions Renew the War on Drugs?

Jeff Sessions’ first actions as attorney general indicate the Justice Department will aggressively prosecute violent crime and may return to outdated drug war policies, reversing Obama-era initiatives that focused fewer resources on non-violent drug crimes. Experts are worried Sessions’ approach could resurrect ineffective, wasteful practices and increase unnecessary incarceration.

Sessions outlined his vision for the Justice Department in a memo to federal prosecutors earlier this month, where he asked them to work with federal, state, and local law enforcement to identify individuals committing violent crime in their area and levy “immediate and appropriate” punishments. In prepared remarks to law enforcement officers last week in Richmond, Virginia, he noted combating the “scourge of drugs” would be a top priority.

Focusing on violent offenders is necessary, but focusing on drug crimes does not make us safer, said Inimai Chettiar.

“This was a major factor in making the United States the world’s number one jailer, and we should not repeat the mistakes of the past,” she said.

Both Sessions and President Trump have pointed to rising crime rates as a main factor behind the administration’s ‘tough on crime’ approach. However, a Brennan Center analysis of 2016 numbers in America’s 30 largest cities found that overall crime rates remain near historic lows. The murder rate increased, but the 2016 spike was caused largely by Chicago.

Read more in the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and Associated Press.

Trump’s First Speech to Congress Repeats Falsehoods on Crime

President Donald Trump addressed a joint session of Congress late last month and painted a bleak and inaccurate picture of an America where drugs “pour in at a now unprecedented rate” and “criminal cartels have spread across our nation,” creating “an environment of lawless chaos.”

Inimai Chettiar and Ames Grawert said his rhetoric doesn’t “square with reality” in a piece for the Washington Post.

“Despite Trump’s bluster, [ ] crime in the United States actually remains at or near historic lows,” they wrote. “The president continues to dish out alternative facts on crime to justify a reactionary agenda. From a wall along the border with Mexico, to a revised ‘travel ban’ on Muslims, to a likely crackdown on drug users, Trump needs to distort the truth to feed these policies to the American people.”

Chettiar and Grawert point out that last year, the overall crime rate fell for the 14th year in a row. Crime rates stand near the bottom of a quarter-century downward trend (violent crime graph, below). And places President Trump rightly points out as having problematic murder rates, like Chicago, are extreme outliers compared to the rest of the country.

“Flashy proposals such as walls and travel bans may play well at rallies, and overwrought rhetoric about crime certainly grabs headlines,” they wrote. “But the real work of ‘making America safe again’ calls for a little less bombast, and a lot more focused action.”

Grawert also discussed the downward trend in crime rates on NPR.

Obama White House Official Joins Center’s Economic Advisory Board

Dr. Jason Furman (left), former chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, has joined the Brennan Center’s Economic Advisory Board, a group of renowned economists from across the political spectrum who support the Center’s data-driven approach to ending mass incarceration.

Furman is currently a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He spearheaded a 2016 report from the Council that examined the costs of mass incarceration and provided recommendations for reform. It was released at an event at the White House that same year with the Brennan Center, American Enterprise Institute, Third Point CEO Daniel Loeb, and others.

Other Brennan Center Advisory Board Members include Dr. Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary; Dr. Joseph Stiglitz, former CEA Chairman; Dr. Peter Orszag, former director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Dr. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former chief economist for President George W. Bush.

Applying economic principles to study mass incarceration and the criminal justice system is becoming more frequent in the field. Brennan Center Economics Fellow Matthew Friedman moderated a panel earlier this year at the Allied Social Science Association conference, the world’s largest gathering of economists. In a blog post about the event, he noted that a decade ago, not a single paper, panel, or poster at the conference touched on the issue. 

Research Roundup

  • The Prison Policy Initiative released an updated version of its pie chart of America’s prison system. It looks at the total number of people behind bars in America (2.3 million), and breaks down what type of facility they’re being held in and what crime put them there. Among other things, the organization found that 1 in 5 people behind bars are incarcerated for a drug offense.  
  • A Zogby Analytics/RTI International public opinion poll found that 62 percent of Americans believe treatment and rehabilitation is the best response to non-violent offenses, as opposed to punishment or incapacitation through incarceration. That number jumps to 74 percent if the individual who committed the non-violent offense suffers from mental illness. 
  • A report by the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that while the number of women in the justice system has grown by more than 700 percent from 1980 to 2014, women have not benefited from criminal justice reform to the same extent as men. Researchers looked specifically at what role gender plays in the New York City criminal justice system, recommending reforms that would reduce the number of people arrested, use the lease restrictive pretrial conditions, give women access to social services throughout their involvement with the justice system, and more.