Pubdate: Mon, 15 May 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Carl Hulse


WASHINGTON - As a senator, Jeff Sessions was such a conservative
outlier on criminal justice issues that he pushed other Republicans to
the forefront of his campaign to block a sentencing overhaul, figuring
they would be taken more seriously.

Now Mr. Sessions is attorney general and need not take a back seat to
anyone when it comes to imposing his ultratough-on-crime views. The
effect of his transition from being just one of 535 in Congress to
being top dog at the Justice Department was underscored on Friday when
he ordered federal prosecutors to make sure they threw the book at
criminal defendants and pursued the toughest penalties possible.

"This is a key part of President Trump's promise to keep America
safe," Mr. Sessions said on Friday as he received an award from the
New York City police union to mark the beginning of National Police

Given Mr. Sessions's long record as a zealous prosecutor and his
well-known views on the dangers of drug use, his push to undo
Obama-era sentencing policies and ramp up the war on drugs was hardly
a surprise. But it was still striking, because it ran so contrary to
the growing bipartisan consensus coursing through Washington and many
state capitals in recent years - a view that America was guilty of
excessive incarceration and that large prison populations were too
costly in tax dollars and the toll on families and

In an increasingly rare achievement, conservatives and liberals had
come together on the issue, putting them on the verge of winning
reductions in mandatory minimum sentences and creating new programs to
help offenders adjust to life after prison. Given the success shown by
similar changes at the state level, bipartisan majorities in the House
and the Senate seemed eager to move ahead on the issue last year.

Despite the strong support, stiff opposition from Mr. Sessions and a
few other outspoken Republicans - Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and
David Perdue of Georgia among them - stalled the bill in the Senate
and sapped momentum from a simultaneous House effort.

As the 2016 elections approached, Senator Mitch McConnell, the
Kentucky Republican and majority leader, shied from bringing to the
Senate floor the politically charged issue that had divided his party.
So the effort died, much to the disappointment of the unusual
cross-section of advocates behind it.

Backers of the sentencing overhaul say that Mr. Sessions, who as a
senator from Alabama supported legislation that would have made a
second marijuana trafficking conviction a capital crime, is living in
the past and is badly misguided.

"Locking up people who don't pose a threat to public safety is a waste
of taxpayer money, a waste of resources and doesn't deter crime," said
Steve Hawkins, the president of the Coalition for Public Safety, a
sentencing reform advocacy group whose partners are as diverse as the
liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative

These organizations, along with Koch Industries, argued for sentencing
changes as a way to save governments the huge costs of maintaining
prisons and to make more productive contributors out of nonviolent
offenders - a rare win-win for ideologically divided factions.

The wide backing, which came as an opioid crisis was hitting
economically struggling communities across America, struck a chord
with Republicans who might usually balk at a less punitive model.
Prominent Republican backers in the Senate included John Cornyn of
Texas, the No. 2 party leader; Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the
Judiciary Committee chairman, who was instrumental in advancing the
legislation; and Mike Lee of Utah, a well-respected younger

But while these lawmakers saw an opportunity to take a new approach to
sentencing and incarceration, Mr. Sessions was not convinced. Despite
a broad decrease in crime in recent years, Mr. Sessions believed that
a recent surge in violence in some cities showed that America was
again at risk. An early backer of Mr. Trump, Mr. Sessions shared his
stark vision of an urban America besieged by criminals, and argued
that plea deals disguised the real nature of crimes committed by
people portrayed as nonviolent.

Mr. Sessions repeatedly said that going soft on crime would accelerate
a return to the days of drug-fueled criminality across the country - a
point he reaffirmed on Friday.

"We know that drugs and crime go hand in hand," he said. "Drug
trafficking is an inherently violent business."

In the Senate, Mr. Sessions was more than willing to cede the
limelight on the issue to Mr. Cotton, a rising star among
conservatives who referred to the Senate legislation as the "criminal
leniency bill" and said America was suffering from an
"under-incarceration" problem. But Mr. Sessions remained a crucial

"He's been the No. 1 opponent of the bipartisan effort in the Senate
to reduce mandatory minimums for low-level nonviolent drug offenses,"
said Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who was one of
the chief authors of the bipartisan bill.

Advocates of the sentencing changes say they hope that the unilateral
move by Mr. Sessions will stir Congress to intervene and establish new
policy through legislation. And Jared Kushner, the president's adviser
and son-in-law, has been assigned the job of working on a criminal
justice overhaul, among other issues.

But pushing the bipartisan approach would require confronting the
sitting attorney general and perhaps the president - a challenge many
Republicans may not be willing to accept. None of the chief Republican
backers of the Senate legislation issued any public reaction to the
new Justice Department directive on Friday - not a good sign for
proponents of an overhaul.

As a senator, Mr. Sessions succeeded in stalling the sentencing reform
movement. As attorney general, he has sent it reeling in Washington,
and it could be very hard for advocates to regain their footing while
he is the nation's chief law enforcement official.
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