Jeff Sessions' Tough-on-Crime Approach Faces Bipartisan Pushback

AG's unilateral move to push for tougher penalties for drug crimes drew ire from some of his former GOP colleagues

“We are returning to the enforcement of the law as passed by Congress – plain and simple," Jeff Sessions said in announcing his new directive Friday. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty

Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to have stirred a hornet's nest on Capitol Hill by attempting to force the nation's prosecutors to seek the toughest penalty possible for drug crimes, including those that require increasingly unpopular mandatory minimum sentences.

"This is a key part of President Trump's promise to keep America safe," Sessions said when unveiling his new directive on Friday. "If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way. We will not be willfully blind to your conduct."

Sessions' unilateral move drew pushback from Congress members, including his former Republican colleagues in the Senate. "To be tough on crime we have to be smart on crime," tweeted GOP Sen. Mike Lee. "That is why criminal justice reform is a conservative issue."

Former GOP presidential candidate Rand Paul tried to remake his party's image on the issue by traveling to minority communities during the 2016 election cycle and speaking in favor of criminal justice reform, in part by leaning on the conservative economic argument that overcrowded prisons are a waste of taxpayer dollars.

"Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long," Paul said in a statement to Rolling Stone. "Attorney General Sessions' new policy will accentuate that injustice. Instead, we should treat our nation's drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' problem."

But Sessions seems to have the law on his side; as a senator in the last Congress, he was a part of a small group of Republicans who actively sought to derail criminal justice reform. "So we are returning to the enforcement of the law as passed by Congress – plain and simple," Sessions said Friday, seeming to taunt his former colleagues to either reform the current law or stop complaining that he's enforcing what's on the books.

Under former Attorney General Eric Holder, prosecutors were urged to use discretion, especially for low-level drug offenders. Nationwide, prosecutors seeking mandatory minimums plunged (a statistic Sessions' staff didn't seem to catch on the DOJ website); they went from being sought in roughly 66 percent of cases in which they applied to only half of such cases.

That's why Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott is redoubling his effort to revamp the criminal justice system. That starts with trying to change the conversation on Capitol Hill – which, if successful, could trickle down to the Justice Department and prosecutors nationwide.

"The question is: Is the purpose of your crime policy to reduce crime and save money? – which we know how to do – or to codify simpleminded slogans and soundbites for political consumption?" Scott tells Rolling Stone of Sessions' move to reinstate mandatory minimums. "If you're trying to reduce crime and save money, it doesn't work. If you're trying to bamboozle the public, it does work."

Over the next few weeks, Scott and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are planning to reintroduce a revamped version of the Safe Justice Act, which he introduced with Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner in 2015, that they hope will garner even broader support. The bill is intended to make the nation's probation system better at keeping former prisoners out of jail, while focusing mandatory minimums on those at the top of drug rings, rather than the low-level offenders who can find themselves facing decades in prison for a first offense.

But Scott and other proponents of the legislation face an uphill battle: Many of the GOP old guard have long been supporters of mandatory minimums, and now they have even more cover, from Sessions and others in the Trump administration.

But Scott is still trying to get his colleagues on Capitol Hill to focus on prevention, early intervention and rehabilitation. He points to states like Texas that have reformed their prison systems – focusing more on probation and specialty programs for the mentally ill, for instance – and have witnessed a reduction in crime while also saving money. In the Lone Star State, which still has many flaws in its crowded system, instead of paying more than $2 billion to build more prisons, the state enacted reforms in 2007 and saw the recidivism rate drop from 31.9 percent before the reforms to 24.3 percent in the three years after they kicked in.

Scott acknowledges that changing the conversation is difficult, because politicians get rewarded for seeming to be tough on crime.

"I haven't seen anybody – and this is one of the problems with crime policy – I haven't seen anybody supporting mandatory minimums who had to justify their position. So a vote in favor of mandatory minimums becomes a safe vote, because you never hear about it again," Scott tells Rolling Stone. "Nobody gets ambushed voting stupid on crime. You get ambushed voting smart on crime."