The most dangerous man in America doesn’t sit atop the FBI’s Most Wanted list, but instead runs arguably the most powerful institution of our federal government—the Department of Justice. Jeff Sessions, as United States Attorney General, has virtually unchecked power to cater the policies of the DOJ to fit his own agenda, and these policies affect everyone. The Attorney General is answerable only to the laws passed by Congress and to the President, who has the sole authority to hire or fire him. While the President’s tweeting habits may indicate he is tightening Sessions’ leash, for all of Sessions’ activity that doesn’t pertain to Mueller’s Russia investigation, the President has largely turned a blind eye. This tacit disinterest leaves Sessions with free reign over the DOJ, able to interpret the law however he sees fit. This power, in the hands of Jeff Sessions, is lethal to the last century of our country’s progress.
Sessions wishes to reinstate antiquated policies mirroring those in place before the Civil Rights movement and in the heyday of the War on Drugs. History can tell us why this is a bad idea. To do so, despite his purported conservative “small government” policies, Sessions has been quietly, yet significantly, expanding the reach of the federal government, against the wishes of most American citizens. His dogged and irrational pursuit of marijuana-related crime disproportionately targets African-American neighborhoods for criminal activity and increases medical reliance across America on prescription opioids for those who would alternatively utilize the much safer and less addictive medical marijuana for pain management. His emphasis on “violent crime” diverts necessary attention from the prosecution of other prolific criminal arenas such as white-collar and cybercrimes that can and do have devastating consequences on American lives, as well as our democratic system. On top of all of this, his enthusiasm for debtor’s prisons and his call for reduced oversight of police departments, despite repeated documented police shootings and abuses of power by police officers, will lead to an assured curtailment of citizens’ civil rights.
Because the American people overwhelmingly disapprove of harsher marijuana restrictions and expanding federal overreach, Sessions’ policies have received inevitable bipartisan condemnation, with criticism spouting from even the notoriously conservative Koch brothers. Recently, a bipartisan group of 54 lawmakers in Congress sent President Trump a letter urging him to direct Sessions to reinstate an Obama-era policy that gave states leeway in allowing marijuana for recreational purposes. Despite Sessions’ claim that by pursuing strict enforcement of federal marijuana laws he aims to “enforce the laws that were enacted by Congress,” his policies are clearly not in line with the desires of Congress, who, short of changing the law, has little say in how the criminal statutes written by its predecessors are construed.
In his Department Charging and Sentencing Policy memo for all federal prosecutors released in May of 2017, Sessions called on prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” His primary objective seemed to be that of reversing the directives of his predecessor, former AG Eric Holder, who urged prosecutors to apply discretion when considering what charges to bring against a defendant to avoid unnecessarily harsh sentences disproportionate to the crime committed. Holder recognized a disparity between those offenders who may have made a wrong decision, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, as opposed to those who truly pose a danger to society. Holder believed the punishment for the former should not match that of the latter. Sessions has discarded this distinction, and in doing so, will wreak havoc on society and fly in the face of the principles our criminal justice system is supposed to uphold. As Holder stated in his criticism of Sessions’ new orders, these policies are not “tough on crime, they are dumb on crime.”
As a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, I have seen firsthand the criminal justice system work for both good and ill. When the system works as it is supposed to, lives can be changed and justice can be achieved. When the system is abused by those in power, as it is all too often, chaos erupts, and lives are unnecessarily destroyed. Due directly from the policies outlined in the Holder memo which called for discretion on the part of the prosecutor, one of my clients, “Jim,” who would have otherwise gone to jail, his life effectively ruined, instead was given a second chance by federal prosecutors and an understanding judge. Jim was able to keep his job and remain a productive member of society. He was able to work on himself, to reform his bad behavior and focus on being a better person, all the while with a future to look forward to. While Jim has at times faltered, he moves forward, and couldn’t have done so without the Holder memorandum principles in place and understanding prosecutors who weren’t looking to condemn him to a life in prison. If Jim had been prosecuted under the Sessions’ DOJ, he would still be in jail right now with no chance to better himself or society.
The criminal justice system needs more success stories like Jim. Our criminal justice system is meant to not only punish, but also to rehabilitate. Prison, or any punishment that is not life or the death penalty, is supposed to be a time-out, a time for self-betterment and reflection. In theory, one is supposed to emerge from prison changed and ready to reclaim her life. Unfortunately, a criminal record marks you for life. If you’re lucky, you can return to life as you knew it, but for most, life will never be the same. Job opportunities dwindle. Those who did not have much to begin with are left with virtually nothing. In these cases, prison does not rehabilitate, it cripples.
We must enact policies that shift our criminal justice system forward—towards real justice. Justice does not come from prosecutors blindly pursuing the harshest penalties for minor offenses or from locking people in jail who can’t afford to pay traffic tickets. Justice does not come from diverting federal funds from the prosecution of white-collar crime to focus on street crime. Justice does not come from sending anyone who has made a mistake in his life to prison and reducing the oversight that holds those in power accountable. Justice comes from the presumption of innocence, from checks on those in power, from research, reason, and compassion when deciding punishment, and integrity on behalf of those who pursue that punishment.
Moving away from unnecessarily harsh punishments—including mandatory minimums and sentencing enhancements—particularly for nonviolent crimes, which include most drug crimes, benefits all of us. With less money spent on prosecuting these nonviolent offenders and keeping them in prison, there is more money available for more serious crimes and more room in prison for the violent offenders who need to be there. Resources are not unlimited. We need to use them efficiently and effectively. Jeff Sessions, in his outspoken attempts to re-instate the disastrous War on Drugs and erase a multitude of Civil Rights era victories, is carelessly and recklessly spending our tax dollars to pursue a backwards agenda out of line with the will of the American people he is in place to serve. The worst part is that he has the power to do so.