The new policy undermines some of the most important reforms made in criminal justice policy in recent years. Attorneys are told to “charge and pursue the most serious and readily provable offenses,” and craft a legacy for the Trump administration that increases draconian and retributive justice. The reform consists of mandatory minimum sentences and an intensification of aggressive policing in America’s poorest communities of color.
They return to the idea that the public are safer and better off when social problems are tackled through the criminal justice system rather than educational or social welfare systems.
Virtually every principle in the Sessions Memo is deemed incorrect by countless research studies, including the two-year study conducted by a blue ribbon panel of experts and the National Academy of Sciences.
The actualization of those principles in the past four decades have been shown to destroy this nation rather than to secure its future. Despite this, the justice department proceeds with insufficient alarm and critical comment.
In short, harsher sentences handed down to improve public safety or address community violence flies in the face of agreements made by a solid cross-party coalition of politicians about how to address these issues.
What do we know?
America already locks up more people, including children, and for longer, than literally any other country on the planet. Re-embracing mandatory minimums to pass even harsher sentences and intensify policing in poor communities are counterproductive, immoral and financially unsustainable. Such policies destroy communities and makes them more dangerous.
Longer sentences don’t reduce crime. More aggressive policing creates problems rather than solves them and longer prison terms places enormous stress on distressed and marginalized communities. Human beings are less able to address social and economic problems if we attempt to solve them via prisons. Mass incarceration distorts our democracy and the embrace of draconian criminal justice policy undermines the economy.
This nation’s embrace of punitive justice policies every single time in its history has fallen heavily and staggeringly disproportionately, on African Americans, Latinos, and the poor.
The turn to a more retributive criminal justice system has never in history accompanied a commitment to the principle of equal justice under the law. People of colour are disproportionately policed and imprisoned for drugs even though more white people use and sell drugs. Police and prison guards rarely serve time behind bars for crimes even though a shocking number of unarmed citizens have been shot to death or beaten to death by members of law enforcement.
Jeff Sessions refuses to bring charges against the white officers who shot dead black Louisiana resident Alton Sterling, and instead insists on tougher policing of people of color. This hurts communities ravaged by the failed drug war and and relations where residents can scarcely turn around without being stopped and frisked.
This administration now, along with global warming, willfully ignores the common understanding of the purpose of our criminal justice system. More arrests and longer prison time will devastate children, families, and communities. We know this. The Jeff Sessions memo that ignores this outcome should alarm us all.
Heather Ann Thompson is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Pantheon Books), and a Professor of History at the University of Michigan.