Skip Navigation

Jeff Sessions Boldly Marches Backwards

The Attorney General is determined to revive failed policies from the past.

July 20, 2017

It says an awful lot about Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he believes the answers to the nation’s criminal justice problems can be found in the past; in many of the same misguided policies that brought us to the sorry state in which we find ourselves today. Doing the same thing you know has failed in the hope that it will succeed is not just a regressive and counterproductive way to govern. It also raises fundamental questions about Sessions’ motives for as long as he still has his job (and that may not be long): what kind of public official ignores historical evidence and science in the name of fortifying America’s reputation as the world’s incarceration capital?

We have known for decades now, for example, that the war on drugs is a colossal waste, a tragic failure on virtually every level. That its has failed to stop the demand for illegal drugs while ruining the lives of millions of Americans. That its has helped fuel the mass incarceration under which we labor today. So what does Sessions do once he takes over the Justice Department? He doubles-down on that un-winnable conflict, ensuring that a new generation of citizens will be imprisoned and that countless more families will face ruin.

 We know that the D.A.R.E. program, the one that brought us the “Just Say No” campaign a generation ago, was an abject failure. That is not a debatable fact. The U.S. government itself confirmed the program’s lack of success. So what does Sessions do? He announces last week that he wants to bring it back as a way of fighting the opioid epidemic. There are so many smart lawyers, judges, prosecutors, police officers, and doctors working on creative solutions to the problem. Our Justice Department, on the other hand, thinks Nancy Reagan had it right 33 years ago with a silly slogan.


We know there is no correlation between mandatory minimum sentences and violent crime rates—sentencing people to longer terms does not deter them from committing the offenses that led them to be eligible for those sentences in the first place. A new study by the Urban Institute illustrates how mandatory minimums have driven the incarceration rate. So what does Sessions tell the nation’s federal prosecutors? To push for those sentences whenever possible. And what has the attorney general said to his former colleagues on Capitol Hill? Enact more federal laws that require more mandatory minimums.

We know that private prison operators are unable or unwilling consistently to provide inmates with constitutional conditions of confinement. We know that private prisons are regularly understaffed and dangerous and that the medical and mental health care provided in them is substandard to the point of deadly. So what does Sessions do? He throws roses to his friends in the private prison lobby and commits to expand federal use of these facilities. This means the Justice Department for the foreseeable future will proudly ignore the conclusions of countless judges, lawyers, and other experts all of whom have concluded that private prisons operate with deliberate indifference.

We know that civil asset forfeiture has been an area of law enforcement abuse that has outraged conservatives and liberals alike. The ACLU has railed against local police  improperly seizing property from citizens. So has conservative stalwart Justice Clarence Thomas. The fact that the police use this tactic as an economic weapon, especially against communities of color, explains why so many state lawmakers have tried to restrict the practice over the past few years. So what does Sessions do? This week he announced the feds intend to double-down on forfeiture, to make it easier for local police to employ the tactic and share the bounty with the feds.

We knew that that Trump administration would be far different from the Obama administration in imposing its own criminal justice priorities. We knew that Jeff Sessions and company, riffing off the president’s baseless “American carnage” motif, would halt or undermine many, or all, of the Obama-era reforms no matter how successful. We also know that there may be different ways to solve the same problem; in fact, some of the best ideas in judicial reform recently have come from conservatives.

What we did not know, six months ago, is how few original ideas Jeff Sessions would bring to the criminal justice debate. Or that he would blindly cling to outdated tactics that history has shown have no chance of succeeding. This is not just governmental incompetence—although it surely is that. It is not just reactionary—although it surely that, too. It is something more. Something beyond reason and logic. It is a deliberate attempt to restore the most unjust, racist and self-defeating remnants of a system of which all Americans should be ashamed. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Getty)