New York Times (Editorial)
May 22, 2017
When it comes to criminal justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a man out of time — stuck defiantly in the 1980s, when crime in America was high and politicians scrambled to out-tough one another by passing breathtakingly severe sentencing laws. This mind-set was bad enough when Mr. Sessions was a senator from Alabama working to thwart sentencing reforms in Congress. Now that he is the nation’s top law enforcement officer, he’s trying to drag the country backward with him, even as most states are moving toward more enlightened policies.
On May 12, Mr. Sessions announced a drastic policy ordering federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges against crime suspects in all cases, rescinding an Obama administration directive that focused on reducing punishments for low-level, nonviolent offenders, mostly in drug cases, and steering more law-enforcement resources toward the bigger fish. That approach was working: The federal prison population started to drop for the first time in years, even as crime has remained at historic lows.
Instead of acknowledging these gains, Mr. Sessions has clung to the familiar myth that longer, harsher sentences reduce crime and increase public safety. The evidence shows the opposite: To bring down recidivism, a punishment’s swiftness and certainty matter far more than its length. Longer sentences may even lead to more reoffending.
Mr. Sessions’s outdated ideas have been rebuked across the political spectrum. Eric Holder, the attorney general who issued the Obama-era policy, called the new approach “dumb on crime.” Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, pointed out that people of color suffer disproportionately from mandatory-minimum sentences for drug crimes, and said Mr. Sessions’s charging policy “will accentuate the injustice.” A group of 31 current and former state and local prosecutors — not people ordinarily associated with going soft on crime — signed an open letter calling the directive an “unnecessary and unfortunate return” to harmful and discredited practices. Mr. Sessions has taken a sledgehammer to this rare and fragile bipartisanship, at least on the federal level. And while it’s too soon to know how the new policy will affect sentences, prison populations, or recidivism rates, Mr. Sessions’s assertion that the justice system is not harsh enough — however isolated that view — could trickle down and affect justice reform in the states.
Fortunately, states have been moving in the other direction, as budget-conscious lawmakers saw what Mr. Sessions has not — that locking up more people for longer periods is hugely expensive with no real public-safety payoff. The states should continue with their effective, evidence-based approaches, and Congress should find a way at last to pass meaningful sentencing reform. Reducing or eliminating many mandatory minimums would be optimal, but at this point most anything would be an improvement.
A bipartisan group of senators recently reintroduced the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would give judges more flexibility to impose lighter sentences in certain cases. They were achingly close to passing a similar bill last year, until a small clot of senators blocked it. One of those senators was Jeff Sessions.
A version of this editorial appears in print on May 22, 2017, on Page A24 of the New York edition with the headline: Lurching Backward on Justice Reform.
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