During the past several years, both the federal government and many states took important steps toward reducing some of the harms caused by the War on Drugs.
These policy changes were adopted with bipartisan support providing cause for optimism among reformers. Notable examples include, the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the introduction of sentencing reform bills in both the House and Senate, dozens of state-level reforms to mandatory minimum laws, former Attorney General Eric Holder’s directive to U.S. Attorneys not to bring charges that require mandatory minimum sentences against low-level drug offenders, and the record breaking 1,715 commutations issued by President Obama.
There was a sense that the worst was over and draconian drug policies might be on their last legs. A strong consensus formed in agreement that drug prohibition is ineffective, not worth the human and monetary cost, and should be wound down if not completely dismantled. Maybe we could finally wake up from the long 45-year nightmare of the War on Drugs.
Enter the new attorney general, former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.
In a speech on Wednesday, Sessions said he doesn’t care whether it’s “unfashionable”–he’s doubling down on the War on Drugs. Like much of the rhetoric about drugs in the 70s and 80s, Sessions’ comments last week sound like lines out of Reefer Madness. He calls marijuana a “life-wrecking dependency” that “will destroy your life.”
While it’s true criminal justice is primarily a function of state and local governments, the attorney general wields significant influence by prioritizing law enforcement objectives, directing the U.S. attorneys on how to charge defendants, issuing federal grants to state and local criminal justice efforts and police departments, using the DOJ’s Office of Legislative Affairs to influence measures in Congress, and voicing opinions on any criminal justice legislation from the bully pulpit of the top law-enforcement office.
Sessions will likely use his position to stifle criminal justice reform. He has been an outspoken critic of drug legalization, sentencing reform, and he tends to see any effort to rollback even the most egregious “tough on crime” policies as dangerous and a threat to public safety.
He denounced Obama's efforts as "weakening of some of our most important criminal sentencing policies.” He also called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act “dangerous” and a “criminal leniency bill” rather than a “criminal justice reform bill”.
Sessions strongly supports the practice of civil asset forfeiture. In an effort to make the practice sound benign, he says, “taking and seizing and forfeiting, through a government judicial process, illegal gains from criminal enterprises is not wrong.” This definition is misleading and obscures the main reason why it has been roundly criticized – the government doesn’t need to secure a conviction before taking your property. In fact, police don’t even have to charge you with a crime. According to an in-depth report in the Washington Post, in 81 percent of forfeiture cases, no one was indicted.
It’s unclear if Sessions will directly challenge states that diverge from the federal government on marijuana policy. He made this vague statement at a recent news conference, “States ... can pass the laws they choose. I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not." If the Justice Department decides to interfere with states on this issue it would be acting with little popular support. 71 percent agree the government should not enforce federal laws against marijuana in states that decide to legally regulate marijuana.
To his credit, Sessions co-sponsored the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100-1 to 18-1. It passed unanimously.
However, his record and statements taken as a whole paint a dismal picture and offer little to celebrate. Those concerned about excessively punitive sentences and destructive drug policies are bracing for an uphill battle with the nations top cop.
One of my goals in making the documentary film Incarcerating US was to show how the drug war and changes in sentencing policy have caused a drastic increase in both the prison population and the average length of sentences. In order to capture the frenzy surrounding crime and drugs in the 1980s, I included several hysterical statements by politicians positioning themselves as ‘tough on crime’. The new attorney general’s speech, with its disregard of history, data, and compassion, fits squarely with the strong-arm bombast of that era, providing a clear reminder that the War on Drugs is far from over.