Trump’s attorney general could halt Obama-era criminal justice reforms

President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Justice Department was a key crusader against efforts to shorten federal prison sentences for lower-level drug offenders earlier this year, raising concerns among criminal justice reform activists that the momentum of their movement could slow to a stop.

Sen. Jeff Sessions was one of the few Republican senators who bucked the bipartisan effort to reform the criminal justice system this year. The broader plan to reform sentencing was backed by such unlikely allies as the conservative billionaire Koch Brothers, the former head of the NRA, President Obama and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — despite a bitterly divided Congress.

At the time, Sessions argued that an uptick in crime in some major cities was a sign that the federal government should not release drug offenders. (Overall, violent crime is significantly down from its peak in the 1990s.)

“My best judgment after many, many years in law enforcement is that bottom on crime rates has been reached and the rise we’re beginning to see is part of a long-term trend, not an aberration, and the last thing we need to do is a major reduction in penalties,” Sessions said in May, according to the Washington Examiner. Sessions joined with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to kill the bill.

“In the grand scheme of things, we’re just going to have to work harder,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, an umbrella group of bipartisan nonprofits pushing for criminal justice reform.

Harris said that while it’s clear Sessions is not a fan of sentencing reform, the Alabama lawmaker has supported legislation in the past to help people who get out of prison reintegrate into society. Sessions also backed a bill to reduce the vast sentencing disparity between crimes involving crack vs. those involving powder cocaine in 2010. (Crack offenders, most of whom were black, were sentenced 100 times more harshly than people who sold powder cocaine, despite the fact that it’s essentially the same drug.)

“The opportunity is still there,” Harris said. “Hope springs eternal.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions speaks next to Donald Trump at a February rally in Madison, Alab. (Photo: Marvin Gentry/Reuters)
Sen. Jeff Sessions with Donald Trump at a February rally in Madison, Ala. (Photo: Marvin Gentry/Reuters)

If confirmed by the Senate, Sessions would inherit a Justice Department that’s tried to reverse what its current leadership sees as the over-incarceration of Americans due to zealous sentencing of drug crimes beginning in the 1980s and ’90s. In 2013, then Attorney General Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors not to charge people with mandatory minimum sentences in lower-level, nonviolent drug cases. That resulted in a 20 percent drop in the use of those mandatory minimums, according to a recent speech by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. Yates argued that the U.S. spends $80 billion a year on its prison system and must find better ways to tackle crime than by locking millions of its citizens up.

Criminal justice reformers think it’s unlikely Sessions would keep that focus. Inimai M. Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said she believes that Sessions would likely reverse Holder’s “smart on crime” reforms, including the drug sentencing one.

“Probably the police department investigations and also Holder’s smart on crime initiative — those are the two biggest things that would be in danger,” Chettiar said.

Under Obama, the Justice Department has investigated more than two dozen police departments, including the department in Ferguson, Mo., for civil rights violations. The Justice Department sued Ferguson after it refused to pay for its police to be retrained and to install an independent monitor to ensure it was not unfairly targeting black residents.

Trump ran on a law-and-order platform and said he believes that police officers are the most mistreated people in America. This suggests that investigating police departments for abuses would not be a high priority for his Justice Department.

It’s also possible that Sessions could object to the current Justice Department policy of largely not interfering with states that have legalized marijuana. In April, Sessions said it was important to send a message that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” so that Americans realize the drug is dangerous. If he changed that policy, it could mean crackdowns on pot dealers who are acting within their state’s laws.