To the surprise of no one who took the time to read about Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (our new attorney general), his plans for our criminal justice system are belligerently regressive. He’s going to roll back recent police reforms, reopen the private prison system, stop investigating and monitoring local police departments and eliminate the National Commission on Forensic Science. You may be asking yourself why an attorney general would do this given the current tenor of the country regarding law enforcement and the blatant, systemic issues within our system?
Well, according to Sessions, it’s because he believes “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”
In other words, he’s saying, “it ain’t my job.” Jeff Sessions thinks our current system would be better off if we dialed back all that talk about police reform, drug reform, and adequate representation. He prefers the old way we did things. You know, back before that bunch of radicals walked over that bridge in Alabama.
It’s worth noting:
This is the same guy who allegedly agreed with a judge who called a white attorney a “disgrace to his race” for representing a black client.
This is the same guy allegedly called the ACLU and the NAACP “un-American.”
This is the same guy who called marijuana “only slightly less awful” than heroin.
This is the same guy who called the Voting Rights Act “intrusive.”
This is the same guy who charged civil rights activists with voter fraud for doing exactly the same thing white people had been doing for years without prosecution.
This is the same guy who was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 for all of the aforementioned, racist statements and actions.
A great number of people thought it was a terrible idea to make this man the highest ranking law enforcement agent in the land given that the system he would be leading has such a sordid history of promoting racial inequality. But, it happened, and so far it’s going just the way people feared it would.
And it’s a big deal.
Mass incarceration and the rise of the prison industrial complex is a massive issue facing our country. In case you haven’t heard, our criminal justice system is deeply flawed. Since the very first time a gavel connected to its counterpart and reverberated throughout a courtroom on U.S. soil, our system has been unequally applied, tilted even—on the precipice of tipping over. Have we evolved? Sure, we no longer throw people in jail for dating someone of another race, or for sitting in the front of the bus or for using a water fountain assigned to white people, but we’ve really only limped on from the 1960s. We’re still quite draconian, we’re just better at hiding it—the inequality is less direct, more layered. Our institutional racism has more depth to it than it used to.
Minimum sentences for crack possession are 18x longer than minimum sentences for cocaine possession—even though they’re the same drug in different forms. That’s better than the 100:1 disparity applied until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, but it still disproportionally targets poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.
Research by the Herald Tribune analyzing data from the Florida Department of Corrections found that blacks received far longer sentences than whites convicted of the same crimes.
According to data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative, one in five people currently incarcerated are serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Of the estimated 2.3 million people currently incarcerated, that means around 460,000 of them are locked up for drugs. That is an obscene number, especially given the fact that it equals the incarceration total of 1986, and it doubles the incarceration rates of every year until the mid-70s.
It was in the 70s when Nixon’s war on drugs began to make an impact and our prison system started to evolve into the monstrous, industrial behemoth it is today.
Here’s some data from The Sentencing Project:
Quite an uptick wouldn’t you say?
Research conducted by the Pew in 2013 found that the exponential rise in mass incarceration was not a steady increase across the board racially. In 1960, before the Civil Rights Act had passed and discrimination was legal, pervasive and normal, black men were five times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. In 2010, four decades after the Civil Rights Act, with a black U.S. president two years into his first term and many Americans believing we were living in a post-racial nation, black men were six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.
This January, the Department of Justice found that the Chicago Police Department had regularly engaged in discriminatory practices and an array of civil rights violations. A year prior, a similar study on the Baltimore Police Department produced identical findings. The BPD was found to engage in “enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans[.]” Both police forces (the 2nd and 23rd largest in the country respectively) violated the Fourth Amendment protecting against unlawful search and seizure.
The Obama administration seemed to recognize that reform was needed and that the disparity of imprisonment was due to the targeting of poor, predominantly black neighborhoods, the over-sentencing for minor crimes and the lack of proper legal representation. They took small steps to address these issues, but, frankly, they didn’t do enough. The adjustments were incremental and designed to be built upon.
Now they are primed to be erased.
You will not hear much about police reform, community engagement, body cameras, proper legal representation, improving evidence collection methods, tackling rampant sentence disparities, police brutality or any other issue therein for the foreseeable future.
Black lives clearly don’t matter much to Jeff Sessions.
He’s washing his hands of the whole thing, and America will be far worse off for it.
by Jesse Mechanic
Jesse Mechanic is the editor in chief of The Overgrown.