Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions took office we have seen the removal of 46 U.S. attorneys, including two prominent African-Americans in Mississippi; the reversal of a policy that would have allowed federal contracts with the prison industry expire; ordered the review of consent decrees with major police departments; and most recently, ordered the end of a beneficial partnership between the government and the science community.
But the Washington Post has detailed what could be worse than all of those things: a return to the bad old days of the war on drugs. The newspaper reports that Sessions has brought in Steven Cook, a federal prosecutor in Tennessee, to help him turn back some of the policies enacted by former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder regarding criminal justice. According to the Post, the two men plan on returning to the crime-fighting strategies of the 1980s and ’90s, when crime was high, and so was the war on drugs, resulting in a detrimental net effect on communities of color.
Sessions spoke in Richmond, Va., a few weeks ago, noting that the country needs a return to the “Just Say No” approach to fighting drug trafficking. But far too many people remember that while late first lady Nancy Reagan asked this of the nation’s youth, urban violence skyrocketed as police, the prison system and the crack epidemic converged to decimate Black communities.
But noting the increase in homicides in cities such as Chicago, New Orleans and others, Sessions believes a tougher approach to crime is appropriate, despite the overall decreases in crime over the past 20 years.
“If hard-line means that my focus is on protecting communities from violent felons and drug traffickers, then I’m guilty,” Cook said in an interview with the Post. “I don’t think that’s hard-line. I think that’s exactly what the American people expect of their Department of Justice.”
In fact, during a panel by the Post in 2016, Cook was quoted as saying the federal criminal justice system is “working as designed.”
That “design” has a resulted in a total of 188,000 federal inmates alone, according to the Bureau of Prisons; 37 percent of them are Black. That’s only part of the number of incarcerated in the United States, the largest number in the world. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, there were 2.1 million people either in prisons or jails in 2015, almost 1 million of them Black. This figure doesn’t count those under court or law enforcement supervision.
To put it in perspective, the total number of people incarcerated in the United States in 1980 was 503,000.
“What we did, beginning in 1985, is put these laws to work,” Cook boasted. “We started filling federal prisons with the worst of the worst. And what happened next is exactly what Congress said they wanted to happen, and that is violent crime began in 1991 to turn around. By 2014, we had cut it in half.”
But statistics show that many of the people imprisoned during those days up until today have been low-level nonviolent offenders, not violent felons. They were largely driven by mandatory minimum sentences, for which organizations such as The Sentencing Project have advocated for elimination.
Obama and Holder’s policies included seeking the early release of certain nonviolent drug offenders and also a more intelligent approach to charging nonviolent offenders. Bills have also been introduced in Congress to reduce these sentences, rather than increase them. One in 2015 came close to passage, but Sessions spoke out against it, citing recent spikes in violent crime.
“Violent crime and murders have increased across the country at almost alarming rates in some areas. Drug use and overdoses are occurring and dramatically increasing,” said Sessions, who was then on the Senate Judiciary Committee and voted against it, the Post reported. Cook echoed the sentiment, saying it was the “wrong time to weaken the last tools available to federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents.”
The Trump administration’s policy has been almost opposite of what Obama’s was, favoring a heavy-handed approach to crime, particularly citing urban violence. Advocates of reducing mandatory minimums say Cook and Sessions will turn the government toward policies that have proven to tear apart families and harm communities.
“If there was a flickering candle of hope that remained for sentencing reform, Cook’s appointment was a fire hose,” Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), told The Post. “There simply aren’t enough backhoes to build all the prisons it would take to realize Steve Cook’s vision for America.”