By Michael Hill
Criminal justice reform has been shrinking America’s federal prison population, offering social services and treatment to so-called low-level offenders instead of imprisonment in many cases through mandatory minimum sentences and it’s been picking up bipartisan support. But, that could be in jeopardy.
“The murder rate has surged 10 percent nationwide, the largest increase in murder since 1968 and we know that drugs and crime go hand in hand. They just do. The facts prove that’s so. Drug trafficking is an inherently dangerous and violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it with a barrel of a gun,” said U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In a memo, Sessions has reversed Obama-era orders and he’s told federal prosecutors to charge offenders with the most serious provable crime that could get the stiffest sentence. Supervisors must approve any exceptions to the order in charging or pursuing punishment that they think might lead to an injustice.
“And I trust our prosecutors in the field to make good judgements. They deserve to be un-handcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington,” Sessions said.
“I think in as much as he’s sending a message that we need to keep doing this failed policy, it’s a bad message, it’s a wrong message. But I also have to say, you know, I don’t know that the states are going to listen to that message,” said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance.
The Drug Policy Alliance has been at the forefront of reforming criminal justice and so has the American Civil Liberties Union, which says stocks for private prisons skyrocketed the day after the presidential election.
“We’re making progress in reducing mass incarceration in this country and it boggles the mind to think that he would like to reverse that progress. We had bipartisan support for the reduction of mass incarceration and it’s hard to imagine filling jails back up at this time in history,” said ACLU of New Jersey Interim Executive Director Diane Du Brule.
The governor delivered the keynote at a Morris County Drug Court graduation, but on the Sessions’ memo, Chris Christie said, “I haven’t read it, so I have no thoughts.”
But one peer recovery advocate called Sessions’ order alarming.
“What are we going to do? I think this country’s in for a rude awakening and I think it’s time that the community joined together to do something about it now,” said Alton Robinson, lead peer recovery specialist at CARES Morris County.
Sen. Cory Booker has worked across the aisle to reform the criminal justice system. In a statement, he says, “This approach will put more low-level, non-violent offenders in our prisons, waste taxpayer dollars and divert critical resources away from proven approaches that reduce crime.” The senator says, “Piling on mandatory minimum sentences and ‘three strikes, you’re out’ laws on non-violent offenders did little to stop the illegal drug trade in recent decades. Instead, it decimated entire communities, most often poor communities and communities of color; resulted in an uneven application of the law; and undermined public trust in the justice system. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. The failed War on Drugs has been a cancer on our society.”
“You drug dealers are going to prison,” he said.
Where the Obama administration had shown leniency even for some drug dealers, Sessions’ message in rescinding that leniency was just the opposite.