By Jeffery Robinson, ACLU Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality JULY 25, 2017 | 2:00 PM
President Trump and his administration have wasted no time attempting to strip away some of our basic fundamental rights. And some of the most dangerous policies have been introduced and encouraged by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Jeff Sessions’s past behavior has demonstrated active hostility to many Americans. As a prosecutor in Alabama, he prosecuted civil rights activists for doing nothing more than assisting African-Americans to vote, because to him, that was a crime. He has characterized the NAACP as forcing civil rights down the throats of white people. This is a remarkable statement, one that appears to reflect a belief that white people decide when and just how many civil rights people of color should receive.
Now as the head of the Department of Justice, he has control over every federal prosecutor’s office in the country. And if he has his way, we will be going backwards into the failed policies of the past that brought us the system of mass incarceration that we currently suffer from today. And even scarier is the blatant deception used to call his policies one thing when they mean something completely different.
He’s talking in code, so let’s do a little decoding.
What does he mean when he talks about “law and order”?
Over the past several years, we have seen historic consent decrees entered into by the Department of Justice and police departments all over the country to impact the way police act in our communities. There has been an emphasis on training and accountability to the community that is leading the way and making it possible for major changes in policing to happen in cities like Seattle, Cleveland, Baltimore, and elsewhere. But Jeff Sessions says he doesn’t like those consent decrees. He criticizes them as dangerous. That’s code for: cut the police loose. You can bet his DOJ will not be quick to investigate when Black and brown people are beaten or killed or injured by the police.
How about the phase “tough on crime”?
Jeff Sessions has a one-dimensional approach to crime: Put more people in jail for longer periods of time and you will solve the problem of crime. But in 2015, NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice did a review of more than 40 years of data. And what it found is that the falling crime rates during that 40-year period were the result of growing incomes and aging population and various other social and economic factors, not mass incarceration. The report concluded that for nearly two decades now, with crime down and incarceration rates still high, the net positive impact of locking up millions of people has been essentially zero.
But when Jeff Sessions says tough on crime, he actually means more than that. He’s talking about protecting police officers from a supposed rise in violence toward police. Well, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 1,439 officers have been killed in the line of duty over the last 10 years, both maliciously and in accidents. Now preliminary reports from the FBI show that 27 law enforcement officers were maliciously killed in 2013, 51 in 2014, and 41 in 2015. One officer killed maliciously is one too many. We all know that, but the bottom line here is that the shootings of police have declined dramatically since a high in the 1970s.
National Public Radio has reported that the number of officers killed in duty has roughly been cut in half since the 1970s. And that’s why criminologists all over the country like David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, are quick to point out that the data about the number of police officers killed is not enough to call the shootings of officers in Texas and Louisiana some kind of dangerous, permanent trend, as described and claimed by Jeff Sessions.
Now that doesn’t mean that there’s no problem with police and violence. The Guardian tells us 1,134 people were killed at the hand of police officers in 2015. The Washington Post tells us 963 people were killed by police in 2016. For each of these years, law enforcement officers killed almost as many civilians as there were police officers killed in a decade. In the world of real facts, that’s what’s called a trend. A trend of police killing civilians, that is frightening. These facts may identify a dangerous permanent trend, but it’s not the one being claimed by Jeff Sessions.
And what about “the war on drugs”?
This is is code for “Let’s Go Back.” Back to mandatory minimum sentences, back to racial disparity. Under the Holder memo, we were not prosecuting people with mandatory minimum sentences when they weren’t leaders in a drug organization when they didn’t use firearms in the course of what they were doing that was illegal, when they weren’t as involved as the people who we actually needed to punish. And now, Sessions wants to go back to giving everyone in drug cases these mandatory minimum sentences, so maybe 20 years from now, another president can start pardoning people like President Obama did to try and undo the harm of a return to the failed policies of the past.
We have an attorney general who is feeding us alternative facts to support his political agenda and that agenda has little to do with actual justice. I’m reminded of the character in Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith, who was trying to understand why the government was telling him things that just didn’t make sense. And Orwell described it beautifully. The government says to Winston Smith, “You are a slow learner, Winston.” And Winston replies, “How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? 2 + 2 are 4.” And the government replies, “Only sometimes Winston. Sometimes 2 + 2 are 5, and sometimes they are 3, sometimes they’re all of them at once. You must try harder, it’s not easy to become sane.”
Folks, the road to sane criminal justice policy is not paved with alternative facts. 2 + 2 is 4. Even if the attorney general says it’s something different.