Jeff Sessions displays his character deficiencies best whenever he talks about drugs and what he wants to do to the people who use them. With last week’s memo about mandatory minimum sentencing, he’s only cemented he wants his tenure as head of the DOJ to be as characterized by failure as it is by barely-veiled racism.
The memo itself is about sentencing in general, rather than the Drug War in particular, but these two things are indelibly linked in our society. Here’s what our crime-fighting Keebler elf of an Attorney General had to say about his new (read: old, tried and failed) approach for the Justice Department:
[I]t is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense. This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just and produces consistency. This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.
People like Sessions and those who support him rely on the assumption that people like Barack Obama, Eric Holder and those who support them did not want to enforce the law. This is a salient point in some cases—what else do you call letting Wall Street off pretty much scot free after destroying the world economy or turning a blind eye to US citizens executed in drone strikes?—but not really when it comes to drug law enforcement.
Our current AG’s thinking about drugs is part and parcel with his thinking about law itself. His is a worldview of insistent consistency: the facts of a given case or defendant are less important than upholding the strictest statutes of any law in all cases and against all defendants. In other words, the law is the law and that’s it. But this assumes every law on the books is immune from criticism or fault, the letter of the law will never be abused and mitigating factors are always secondary to upholding abstract precepts of justice.
The primary difference between Sessions’ direction for the DOJ and the Obama era’s is that the latter allowed for far more nuance when it came to sentencing any given defendant. Compare Sessions’ language above to the now-reversedv verbiage of 2013’s memo from former AG Eric Holder:
We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers . . . Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation. Moreover, rising prison costs have resulted in reduced spending on criminal justice initiatives, including spending on law enforcement agents, prosecutors, and prevention and intervention programs. These reductions in public safety spending require us to make our public safety expenditures smarter and more productive.
The difference between Sessions’ and Holder’s memos isn’t that one agrees with enforcing the law and the other doesn’t. It’s that only one—Holder’s a rationale for the necessity of a different approach than what came before it. It also does so with far more precision than the other.
The stated policy of the Obama DOJ was that mandatory minimums could do with some revision when it came to pragmatic realities: they equated low-level, nonviolent drug users to serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers, they raised prison costs which then diverted funds from other law enforcement and/or prevention/intervention/rehabilitation programs and didn’t really lead to an increase in public safety.
Consider the validity of such advice given the following information. More than four-fifths of drug arrests are for possession rather than trafficking. From the years 1996 to 2007—the most recent statistics I was able to find on this front—there were significantly more drug arrests for marijuana than for heroin and cocaine. More people are in prison for marijuana use than for all violent crimes combined and, as I’m sure you’ve heard, we imprison more people than any other country in the world.
It would be remiss of me not to mention how unfairly these sorts of policies affect minority groups too. White people are as likely to use drugs and more likely to sell them than black people, yet black people are 5.1 times more likely to be incarcerated than white people. This sort of data has been making headlines for so long that there’s no way Sessions can claim ignorance to this kind of information.
He doesn’t make much of a case for his reversal of the Holder policies throughout his own memo. But his case, as made elsewhere, relies on there being a surge in violent crime throughout America. The data just doesn’t show that, much less that enforcing mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug users has much of a correlation to violent crime prevention in the first place. Violent crime did spike by about ten points in 2015 but that’s the only year such a spike happened under Obama’s watch (unless you’re counting an increase of .7 points from 2011 to 2012) and it was still significantly lower than the crime rate for any year of the preceding Bush and Clinton years. In 2014, the year after Holder’s memo took effect, the crime rate in the US was at its lowest in the previous 20 years. So to combat a minimally increasing violent crime rate, Sessions is now enacting policy similar to what was in effect when that rate was over a hundred points higher. Totally makes sense.
When it comes to making the case for this to the public, his self-assigned task is heading into Sisyphean territory. The National Institute on Drug Abuse admits medical marijuana may lead to a decrease in opioid addiction and an increase in other health benefits. Public support for marijuana legalization was at its highest ever between 57-60%—last year. A Pew poll from 2014 stated 63% of Americans thought moving away from mandatory minimum sentencing was a good idea and that 67% of Americans thought more effort should be put into rehabilitating heroin and cocaine users instead of jailing them.
This is the opposite of what Sessions wants to do. His prepared remarks for a speech in March about this subject downplayed rehabilitation and insinuated he’d combat the rise in heroin and opioid abuse by… targeting marijuana?
Criminal enforcement is essential to stop both the transnational cartels that ship drugs into our country, and the thugs and gangs who use violence and extortion to move their product. One of the President’s executive orders directed the Justice Department to dismantle these organizations and gangs—and we will do just that.
Treatment programs are also vital. But treatment often comes too late to save people from addiction or death.
So we need to focus on the third way we can fight drug use: preventing people from ever taking drugs in the first place.
I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use. But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable. I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana—so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.
Clearly, this is a man with a plan. After all, this is the guy who uttered perhaps the most important dictum about human nature, ethical fortitude and societal justice in recent history: “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Unfortunately, it’s the same plan we’ve been using since the Nixon years and it’s consistently screwed way more people than its helped. If his goal is to play a caricature embodying every harebrained and harmful idea this country has ever had about the prohibition of substances, he’s doing a terrific job.