Senator Jeff Sessions with Donald Trump at a campaign rally.
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I've written in the past that the United States has five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prison population. Most of those prisoners are people of color, and most of them are serving time for drug crimes. Majorities of both parties in Congress support some form of sentencing reform, and they said so with their votes in favor of bills that would have shortened sentences and done away with many mandatory minimums. Until Donald Trump was elected president, that is.
Before the election, a myriad of law enforcement organizations called on both major presidential candidates to publicly support an overhaul of the criminal justice system -- including sentencing reform -- to reduce crime and to improve relations between police and citizens. The move came in the aftermath of repeated failed attempts in Congress to pass comprehensive sentencing reform legislation.
Civil liberties groups have demanded sentencing reform for years. They thought they had a real chance in 2014 when a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act of 2014 (S. 1675). The bill easily passed the Judiciary Committee.
A similar bill, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 (S. 1410), also passed the committee. Both bills also passed through the House Judiciary Committee. They died on the Senate floor, though, when then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) refused to call them up for a vote. A year later, the new majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), also refused to allow a vote. This was despite President Obama's vocal support for reform.
Both bills, which would have eased sentencing guidelines, done away with mandatory minimum sentences for most drug crimes, and offered incentives for federal prisoners that would have allowed early release for good behavior and for taking GED or vocational classes, had the support of groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative Heritage Foundation, former prosecutors, police and prison guard organizations, victims' advocates, prominent conservatives, and faith groups.
The truth is that both bills were good ideas. We have too many "crimes" in the U.S. The only reason they didn't become law is that two stubborn congressional leaders wouldn't allow it. Now, with the appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, sentencing reform is all but dead.
The non-profit Marshall Project wrote recently that things will likely change quickly under Sessions. The new attorney general "helped block broader drug sentencing reform in the Senate this year despite wide bipartisan support, saying it would release 'violent felons' into the street." He will also be tasked with carrying out the new president's policies on private prisons. The Marshall Project noted that candidate Trump told MSNBC's Chris Matthews in June that "I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better." Just weeks before the election, Geo Group, the second largest private prison corporation in America, hired two former Sessions aides to lobby in favor of outsourcing federal corrections to private contractors.
Sessions was known as a vigorous prosecutor of drug cases when he served as the U.S. attorney in Alabama in the 1980s. The Marshall Project notes that he believes that the Obama administration erred by prosecuting fewer, but more serious, drug cases. He said in a March Judiciary Committee hearing that "The prison population is declining at a rapid rate. And at the same time, drug use is surging and deaths are occurring. And in my opinion, it's going to get worse." Most Americans will likely read that to mean that there will certainly be more, not fewer, drug prosecutions and more, not fewer, people going to prison on Sessions' watch.
But that's not all the damage Sessions can do. He can advise Trump to issue executive orders that would countermand those executive orders related to reform that were issued by Obama. With the stroke of a pen, for example, Trump could overturn the federal ban on solitary confinement for juveniles. He can, and likely will, overturn the policy of transitioning away from private prisons. Expect the worst.
I wish there were some sign that something, somewhere, related to criminal justice, sentencing reform, and the so-called war on drugs will improve. There is none. Sessions and Trump are the enemies of civil liberties. They are the enemies of reform. Obama's criminal justice reform policy changes are over. Expect the prisons to fill up again.
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