Skip Navigation

Congress Should Reverse Sessions on Criminal Justice and Drug War

Sessions’ declaration of the next war on drugs is a blow to one of the only, truly bipartisan issues. But the fight for federal criminal justice reform is far from dead.

May 18, 2017

Cross-posted from The Hill.

While the country was preoccupied with FBI Director James Comey’s firing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quietly declared the next war on drugs.

In a memo released last week, Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible penalty in all cases, no matter how minor. The move outright reverses President Obama’s policies, and will send more Americans to prison without good reason.

It’s a blow to one of the only, truly bipartisan issues: criminal justice reform. But the fight for federal reform is far from dead. As the administration is poised to roll back progress, Congress can act to bring about needed change.

The United States has five percent of the world’s population, yet nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. The sweeping, national effects of mass incarceration have brought together political rivals. 

Progressives decry its grossly disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color. Conservatives, such as House Speaker Paul Ryanand Vice President Mike Pence, embrace reform as a moral and fiscal imperative. 

This year, Georgia governor Nathan Deal signed a trio of laws to reduce his state’s prison population, continuing a record of leadership by Republican governors. 

A new poll shows that 81 percent of Trump voters consider criminal justice reform “very” or “somewhat” important. Half know someone who has been to prison.

Sessions is an outlier even in his own party on this issue. He’s stirred up fear of a national crime wave — notwithstanding the fact that it doesn’t exist

And he’s used it to justify a crackdown on petty offenses that even police leaders now reject as a distraction from their principal job of confronting violent crime.

We know these archaic “tough on crime” policies don’t work. The crime rate has plummeted dramatically since 1990. According to conclusive research, prosperity and police are to thank for it — not prisons.

Reflexive opposition is easy, even crucial. But the hard work of implementing solutions is equally needed. This week, we released a point-by-point agenda, one that could unite progressives, conservatives, and law enforcement leaders around a common message. 

It calls on Congress to act.

States can — and should — continue to build on the bipartisan consensus. But politicians in Washington can’t be let off the hook. They set the tone for the nation. Federal dollars can spur local reform, while new Congressional laws can serve as examples for states that lag behind.

A bold plan for change starts with ending the federal subsidization of mass incarceration. Each year, $8.4 billion in federal dollars goes to states and cities largely on autopilot, rewarding more arrests, prosecution, and incarceration.

To change course, Congress could pass a new bill — called a “Reverse Mass Incarceration Act” — providing money to states that cut both crime and incarceration. If states compete for funding like they have in the past, it would lead to a 20 percent reduction in national imprisonment. 

Over the last decade, 27 states cut crime and imprisonment. Federal money will push states further. This proposal is the single most powerful step the federal government can take to advance justice reform.

Congress can also call for a major initiative to improve policing. Activists believe police over-zealousness has reached a breaking point, while many conservatives believe law enforcement needs more public support. Either way, almost everyone agrees something has to change. 

Building on the success of the Community Oriented Policing Services program, Congress can allocate $40 billion to hire and train 20,000 new police officers for a 21st-century mission focused on crime prevention and reduction, while increasing community engagement and reducing unnecessary arrests, use of force, and imprisonment. This program would put more officers on the streets, and repair trust between officers and communities of color.

And finally, Congress should pass sentencing reform. Sessions believeslow-level, nonviolent offenders “simply do not exist in the federal system.” He is wrong. Just 7.4 percent of federal prisoners are behind bars for violent crimes like homicide or robbery.

Recent research shows that 39 percent of all prisoners are behind bars without an adequate public safety rationale. Last Congress, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) tried to chip away at this problem by introducing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Sessions killed the bill. Grassley should re-introduce it, and strengthen it.

To be sure, none of this will be easy. Sessions has made no secret of his opposition to justice reform, in nearly any incarnation. But the Attorney General largely stands alone in in his misguided agenda. 

Even the president’s key advisor, Jared Kushner, has shown support for reform, as has Vice President Mike Pence, who signed sentencing legislation as governor of Indiana.

Voters look to Washington for answers. Too often, ideological differences prevent lawmakers from delivering them.

This makes it all the more urgent to seize chances for cooperation where they exist, both as a matter of good policy and to start restoring public faith in the system. 

Confronting mass incarceration offers that rare opportunity. 

(Image: Gage Skidmore