Trump and Sessions Fight Crime Bigly
On matters of policy it’s not often that Republicans and Democrats or conservatives and leftists can agree on much of anything. However, on the issue of prison reform and reducing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent criminals, there is much common ground. Congress should take that to heart and take steps to change the current law.
Still, such reform isn’t on the Trump administration’s agenda — at least not based on recent actions by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Clearly, Trump and his AG are committed to being very tough on all crime.
Sessions released a memo last Friday ordering federal prosecutors to seek the toughest charges and maximum possible sentences available. This announcement reverses a Barack Obama era policy of basically ignoring mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level drug crimes. In other words, get ready for a renewed commitment from Sessions and Trump to the war on drugs.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a non-profit organization that has been working for years to reduce minimum sentences, had this to say: “While we appreciate the attorney general’s commitment to reducing crime and combating dangerous opioid abuse, we think his strategy is misguided, unsupported by evidence, and likely to do more harm than good. Indeed, the drug epidemic challenging our country today is a devastating indictment of the one-size-fits-all punishment regime that General Sessions seeks to expand. His charging memo throws decades of improved techniques and technologies out of the window in favor of a failed approach.”
Republican Sen. Rand Paul likewise said, “Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long. Attorney General Sessions' new policy will accentuate that injustice.”
Unfortunately, the war on drugs has been an absolute failure and has probably created more crime and criminals.
As National Review’s Andrew Stuttaford puts it: “The war on drugs has not only failed, it has also created quite remarkable amounts of collateral damage. It has trashed civil liberties. It has boosted the power of the state far further than it should ever have been allowed to go. It has squandered the resources of the criminal justice system. It has helped terrorists. It has enriched criminals. It has ruined lives. It has cost billions. It has worked against American foreign policy. It has benefited the ‘prison-industrial complex’. And, yes, it has also created a demand for drugs far more dangerous than those, in a legal market, that people would want to try.”
Civil asset forfeiture has exploded as a result of the drug war, too, and we’re hard pressed to find a more egregious violation of civil liberties in the criminal justice system.
Trump and Sessions are committed to bringing law and order back to America, and that’s a great thing. Trump campaigned as being tough on illegal immigration and this approach to being tough on drug crime is part of what he wants to accomplish as president. Executing the law is his and Sessions' objective.
But drug use and abuse is not a one-size-fits-all problem that calls for the harshest punishment with no discretion available for judges handling the cases. That’s what mandatory minimum sentences do — remove the ability of a judge to decide individual cases.
Furthermore, there’s a legitimate argument that this issue should be left up to the states, not the federal government.
The current law just isn’t good. In fact, the unintended consequence of Sessions' memo is to over-criminalize all people who break federal law. Statistics show that the average American citizen commits three felonies every day. It doesn’t make sense that Sessions wants to incarcerate non-violent criminals for years, putting them behind bars in the same prisons where violent criminals are held.
The prisons in America are already overpopulated, and adding low-level drug crime offenders to the prison rolls has done and will do more harm than good. Two states, Georgia and Texas, have enacted good prison reform and have had impressive results from doing so. By reducing sentences for drug crimes, these states have seen lower recidivism rates, lower costs to taxpayers, less crime, less incarceration and greater public safety.
Looking at this issue another way, how many people have been given a second chance and are now better for it? Those who commit drug crimes such as marijuana use or possession should not be treated like the person who murders or steals and should also not be lumped into the same category as someone who is caught selling a lethal drug such as heroin. Those guilty of low-level drug crimes and other non-violent offenders should be given a second chance. In doing so it will give many people the opportunity to achieve their American dream, get a job and become productive citizens.
This is also an opportunity for churches and other non-profit organizations to take a greater role in ministering to people and caring for those who are suffering. In many cases drug use and abuse is more of a health crisis than it is a crime. Treating all drug crimes the same is nonsense — it hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work in the future.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress need to get to work on prison reform. There are too many lives that are being wasted behind bars simply because Congress has stalled on this issue for too long. Trump and Sessions are doing good work to execute the law as written rather than pick and choose what laws to enforce as Obama and his attorneys general. But Trump and Sessions don’t appear to favor the needed reform, either. Continuing the drug war won’t solve the problem just because they’re in charge now.