Attorney General Jeff Sessions has brought sweeping change to the Department of Justice. In just two months as the nation’s top cop, Sessions has moved quickly to overhaul the policies and priorities set by the Obama administration. He has rolled back protections for transgender students that allowed children to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity and rescinded plans to phase out the federal government’s use of private prisons.
He called for a review of reform agreements, known as consent decrees, reached with local police departments to address allegations of misconduct. Many of the consent decrees were drafted in response to fatal shootings by police.
Sessions has made immigration enforcement a top priority. Late last month he put “sanctuary cities” on notice, announcing that grant money would be withheld from state and local governments that refuse to cooperate with federal authorities and turn over undocumented immigrants arrested for crimes.
Federal prosecutors have also been alerted to a new national push to crack down on violent crime. Sessions tapped Steven Cook, a federal prosecutor and outspoken opponent of criminal justice reform, to lead the charge as assistant deputy attorney general; he will be leading Sessions’s new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.
Alex Whiting, faculty co-director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School, said it appears Sessions is resurrecting the tough-on-crime policies last seen during the George W. Bush administration.
“Obama moved away from that approach, and I think in the criminal justice world there seemed to be a consensus between the right and left that those policies, those rigid policies of the war on drugs and trying to get the highest sentence all the time, had failed,” he said.
“I don’t know if he is really going to be able to persuade the department to follow his lead on this.” In March, Sessions asked the remaining U.S. attorneys appointed by former President Obama to resign. While previous administrations took the same step, Whiting questioned whether Sessions would be able to find 94 prosecutors who will back the DOJ’s new approach.
“He can order and it will have an effect, but how far this gets implemented and with what kind of energy I think is really an open question, and if they will be able to persuade the rank and file to return in a full-fledge way to those policies,” he said.
In a statement to The Hill, DOJ spokesman Ian Prior said Sessions and the Justice Department are focused on fighting violent crime and protecting the public.
“When it comes to sanctuary cities, all we are requiring is that they, just like every other individual in the United States, follow Congress’ duly enacted laws,” he said.
“If requiring individuals and entities to follow the law and combating violent crime are seen as dramatic reversals, then we fully support such a sea change.”
While the attorney general has acknowledged that overall crimes rates are at historic lows, he has warned that trend is about to reverse.
Even if that’s true, Inimai Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, argued that arresting and incarcerating people is not the solution. “Mass incarceration is not contributing to mass crime declines, but it doesn’t appear Jeff Sessions knows that,” she said.
Advocates of scaling back mandatory minimums for prison sentences are expecting to see a major shift in the way crimes are prosecuted.
“To the extent the Obama administration was saying let’s be a little more judicious in the use of mandatory minimums, I think Sessions plans to put his foot on the gas and apply them anywhere and everywhere,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner raised eyebrows late last month when he took a meeting with Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the lead sponsors on a criminal justice reform bill that stalled in the last session of Congress.
While Sessions has never been a fan of efforts to reduce mandatory minimums, Chettiar called the meeting encouraging.
“Kushner is supportive of criminal justice reform… I think it’s possible there’s a strong advocate there,” she said.
Ring, however, isn’t holding his breath. “One day he’s on the Hill talking sentencing reform, then next day he’s visiting the Middle East,” Ring said of Kushner. “He’s got two easy gigs — passing sentencing reform and bringing peace to the Middle East. Good luck with that,” Ring continued.
Law enforcement groups that support Sessions, meanwhile, say the new attorney general is focused on the right things. “I think Sessions has brought a new focus to the core mission of the department, which is to make sure the nation is safe and secure in its law and make sure law enforcement operations are focused on the thing that matters most, preventing crime,” said Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association.
Thompson said Sessions is taking a more holistic approach in preventing crime. “I think there’s a tendency to look at people who are incarcerated and say I really wish they weren’t there, but unfortunately they make personal choices,” he said.
“The attorney general is saying you have to look at that end. You have a crime problem that could be growing and how do we respond to it?
Obviously something worked.”