The day then-President-elect Trump announced that he would nominate Jeff Sessions to be attorney general, I cried. It struck me personally and professionally. My father was a federal drug prisoner and almost died behind bars when prison officials left untreated an emergency medical condition. And I’ve worked on criminal justice and drug policy for almost two decades.
I knew that the Senate Judiciary Committee had blocked Sessions from becoming a federal judge in 1986 because of allegations of racism, and I despaired at the thought of what he might do overseeing the Department of Justice.
After President Trump “joked” with officers that they should be less restrained in their use of force, Sessions limited the Justice Department’s oversight of law enforcement. He ended consent decrees with local law enforcement agencies that were imposed in response to the use of excessive force, biased enforcement and law enforcement practices that prey on the poor.
He also rolled back the 2013 Smart on Crime initiative, which prioritized federal prosecutions of people accused of high-level drug offenses, improved reentry opportunities for people coming home from prison, and sought to reduce racial disparities in federal drug sentencing.
It’s going to take more than the one denial of support for the KKK that Sessions made at his Senate hearing for me to trust what he will do with the FBI’s expansion of surveillance efforts to include so-called "black identity extremists." Given the larger policy climate of this administration, that move immediately calls to mind the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which was used to spy on, infiltrate and disrupt civil rights activists.
Sessions also terminated the Obama administration’s plan to end the use of private prisons for federal prisoners because he was already planning for more federal arrests. And he has effectively given a pass to local governments that criminalize poverty, by rescinding a 2016 Justice Department memo that urged local courts not to set high fines and fees for poor defendants. Most recently, he closed the Access to Justice office, created to improve access to legal services for poor defendants.
The good news is that Congress, the states and voters have been pushing back against Sessions’ backward policy agenda. Local jurisdictions have refused to be bullied by his threats on “sanctuary cities,” with cities standing up defiantly to threats to deny federal funding to cities who do not enforce federal immigration laws. Governors have pushed back on Sessions’ outdated war on marijuana, and the Vermont legislature voted to legalize marijuana right after he rescinded the 2013 Cole memo, which allowed federal prosecutors to choose not to prosecute marijuana offenses in the states that permit adults to consume it.
Now Sessions’ former colleagues in the Senate Judiciary Committee have the chance to pass a legislative package of criminal justice reforms that includes sentencing reform. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, S. 1917, which seeks to rein in federal sentencing laws while also improving prison reentry programming, is scheduled for consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee this month.
Senate Republicans and Democrats both know how important it is to continue the critical work started with the Second Chance Act of 2007, the first federal legislation to address the programming needs of people returning from prison, and Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which significantly reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity.
As unlikely as it might sound, even with Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department, Congress has a chance to start the work of righting longstanding injustices in the criminal justice system — and I have hope for other families whose loved ones are in the federal criminal justice system.