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

Sen. Sessions appears to subscribe to outdated ideas about criminal justice policy that conservatives, progressives, and law enforcement agree do not help reduce crime and unnecessarily increase the prison population.

Published: 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