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Sessions Charts a Course to Criminal Injustice

Moving in the wrong direction

Marc H. Morial | 5/30/2017, 3:30 p.m.
The Department of Justice is moving in the wrong direction and a course correction is critical.
Marc H. Morial

Dear Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the 20th century called. It wants its failed, heavy-handed criminal justice policies back.

In a throwback to the George W. Bush administration, Sessions is widely expected to formally order all federal prosecutors to impose the harshest sentences for all drug offenses and offenders, including the return of the widely unpopular and discredited mandatory minimums.

This “dumb on crime,” bygone-era approach to criminal justice will catapult our nation back to the days of racially-infected mass incarceration, warehousing black and brown bodies at a rate wildly disproportionate to their overall rate of population as a result of overzealously disproportionate law enforcement.

It will perpetually ensnare nonviolent offenders, who have small chance of being rehabilitated while in prison, leaving them to face near-insurmountable obstacles and odds to fully re-enter society, while robbing already vulnerable communities of an ex-offender’s future potential as an employed and civically engaged citizen. And it comes with a heavy price tag for taxpayers—both in terms of safety and cost—with study after study revealing a cynically slim return on investment, if any.

Sessions’ reversal of Obama-era policies that sought to correct the egregious wrongs of our nation’s broken criminal justice system—such as reserving the harshest sentencing and enforcement resources for serious, violent, high-level offenders—flies in the face of promising consensus that has been steadily building among civil rights and social justice organizations, states led by Conservative governors, and across the partisan divide in Congress. It seems everyone, except the Department of Justice, understands that flooding our prisons—and keeping private prisons in business to warehouse the anticipated overflow from federal prisons—is not a solution that has, or will, make us safer.

According to data from The Sentencing Project, Louisiana has the highest state imprisonment rate, yet its governor recently announced a deal to reduce the state’s prison population by 10 percent—an initiative that will save Louisiana taxpayers an estimated $78 million annually. Right now, 4 of the 10 top states with the highest incarceration rates are pursuing “smart on crime” criminal justice reforms that safely reduce our bloated prison population by focusing on alternatives to punishment and improved re-entry programs that increases the chances of ex-offenders never returning to prison.

And we should go a step further. How about working to keep as many people as we can out of the clutches of our broken, racially and socio-economically unjust criminal justice system in the first place?

As a nation, we must agree to prioritize prevention and address crime before it happens. That means looking at—and effectively treating—the root causes of crimes. It means, among other things, housing the homeless, removing the heavy price tag and stigma around mental health and mental health services, feeding the hungry, ensuring a quality education in every zip code, and providing work tied to living and gender equitable wages.

The Department of Justice is moving in the wrong direction and a course correction is critical. The resistance, in all its forms and arenas, remains firm, especially among the states, which bear the fiscal brunt of policies that call for the indiscriminate filling of jails cells at a heavy cost to their budgets and the safety of their citizens.

A growing number of states are reluctant to follow the Department of Justice’s lead, and we hope more states come to the realization that crime can be reduced through a variety of methods that don’t involve throwing the book at people who can be rehabilitated, while keeping the public safe.

We must resist the rollback. We must retreat from the failed policies of the past, not return to them.

Marc H. Morial is president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League.