Is Jeff Sessions leading the Department of Justice to or from its purpose?

By Jennifer Jones Austin

The mission of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) is “To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.”

The confirmation of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General for this most powerful agency was met with genuine concern and fear from the Civil Rights community, and rightly so. In the three months since he assumed the position, key criminal justice reforms implemented under the Obama Administration have been undermined or curtailed. The Attorney General’s position on police reform, immigration, and the reintroduction of the “war on drugs” strongly suggests a lesser commitment ‘to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime.’ Mr. Sessions’ actions validate the fear and concern voiced by many, and should be a concern for us all.

During his second term, President Obama turned his attention to an issue that has devastated black and brown families and communities – the over-policing, over-arresting and over-incarceration of African Americans and Latinos. Mass incarceration reflects one of this nation’s greatest Civil Rights crises. President Obama rightly believed that the US criminal justice system doesn’t produce the best outcomes for the country at large, and that DOJ needed to begin implementing policies and programs to address the deficiencies in the criminal justice system. And the costs are high. There are 2.2 million men and women currently in US jails or prisons and an estimated $80 billion is spent annually on prisons. Over $1 trillion has been spent to fund the failed war on drugs policy. This money would have been better spent addressing the effects of reentry and curbing the recidivism rate. According to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, nearly one third of federal prisoners released following a drug conviction commit new crimes or violate the conditions of their parole and must return to prison.

This is why, Attorney General Sessions’ intention to reinvigorate the federal war on drugs policy raises concern. The war on drugs era was the catalyst for the mass incarceration epidemic. President Richard Nixon coined the phrase “war on drugs,” and President Reagan accelerated incarceration and harsh, mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of drug related offenses. However, research shows that the so called war on drugs was not a deterrent for drug use, nor did the federal policy, which was carried out in states and municipalities throughout the country, decrease the traffic or volume of drugs in this country. What the research has shown is black and brown families and communities have been most adversely affected by this policy:

  • Whereas African Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, and research shows African Americans use drugs at similar rates to people of other races, African Americans comprise 31 percent of those arrested for drug related offences, and nearly 40 percent of those incarcerated in state or federal prison for drug related offenses.
  • Similarly, Latinos make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, but comprise 20 percent of people in state prisons for drug offenses and 37 percent of people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offenses
  • African American children are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than their white peers, even though these same peers are more likely to abuse drugs

Incarceration has lasting, harmful effects – limited employment opportunities for offenders once they leave prison, the loss of the offender’s right to vote and fractured family relations, just to name a few. Attorney General Sessions has acknowledged these disparities but has chosen to ignore them or deem them insignificant in reigniting a policy that has proven unfair and unjust.

Earlier this month Attorney General Sessions released a memorandum detailing the DOJ’s plan to revisit and review all Obama era agreements between municipal police departments and the Civil Rights division of DOJ. The Obama DOJ had conducted 25 investigations of law enforcement agencies across the country where they had been significant incidents of racial profiling, police misconduct and questionable practice, and overall police and community tensions.  Subsequently, they implemented 14 consent decrees and other agreements to implement trainings for law enforcement and better community policing.  It seems that Attorney General Sessions may stop the implementation of these consent decrees.  He has already expressed disbelief about the research and statistics evidencing that African Americans and Latinos experience arrests, unlawful stops by the police, and high instances of excessive force at disproportionate and alarming rates.  To ignore these findings and to disregard the necessity of the Obama DOJ consent decrees is to ignore the mission of the DOJ to ensure public safety.

We all should be concerned and vigilant in resisting both the policies and rhetoric being put forth by the Jeff Sessions-led Department of Justice. Rather than move forward in a positive manner on criminal justice reform, the Attorney General is instead focusing on failed policies, and in fact, taking positions that have been proven to unduly and unjustly harm the most vulnerable in our society.

Jennifer Jones Austin is the CEO and Executive Director at FPWA and is co-host of a segment about poverty and national policy for the nationally syndicated radio show, Keepin’ It Real with Rev. Al Sharpton, which airs Thursdays at 2:00 pm ET.