Pubdate: Mon, 22 May 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company


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

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 Sessions's outdated ideas have been rebuked across the political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.
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