Meet Jeff Sessions' Right-Hand Drug Warrior

Steve Cook's appointment represents a rolling back of the bipartisan momentum on criminal justice reform

Steve Cook, pictured here in February 2016, is now associate deputy attorney general under Jeff Sessions. Credit: Tom Williams/Getty

In January 1990, Ira Johnson stood in a federal courtroom and pleaded with the judge to show her son mercy. Darrell Frazier, 29, had just been sentenced to life in prison without parole. He wouldn't have the right to appear before a parole board – not at age 60, 70 or 80 – no matter what he did to make up for his crimes.

Frazier had not been charged with murder or another violent crime – the sort of thing that one might associate with a life-without-parole sentence – but rather with conspiracy to distribute cocaine. He initially accepted a plea deal that likely would have gotten him 20 years, but he refused it, not realizing that if his case went to trial, he could spend his entire life in prison, according to an appeal of his sentence.

At the time, the federal prosecutor in the case, Steven H. Cook, argued that Frazier deserved to spend the rest of his life in prison because he had prior drug convictions. Frazier got life. Now almost 60 years old, he's locked up in a maximum-security prison in Kentucky, one of countless aging lifers who committed their crimes when they were young and who happen to live in America, the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

A number of lawmakers, prosecutors, cops and judges regret their role in fueling mass incarceration, or at least admit that the U.S. could stand to imprison fewer people. Even former NYPD police chief William Bratton and former Cook County, Illinois, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez – neither of whom could be accused of being soft on crime – joined a group of law enforcement officials who say they want to reduce the country's prison population.

Steve Cook is not one of them. And in a move that signals he's truly committed to rolling back the bipartisan momentum on criminal justice reform, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has tapped Cook to address violent crime in cities – widely seen as a directive to reverse the slim criminal justice reforms that took place during the Obama administration.

"Cook thinks that prison is a reliable answer for almost everything," Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, tells Rolling Stone. "When it doesn't work, the answer is more prison."

While Cook headed the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, the group released an ad about a former inmate who had killed his former girlfriend and her daughters. "It was Willie Horton," says Ring, referencing the infamous 1988 attack ad against Michael Dukakis, in which Dukakis was blamed for the temporary release of Horton after he raped a woman. It was "classic fear-mongering," Ring says.

Ring says it's not realistic to expect that no released prisoner will ever commit another crime. At the same time, life-without-parole sentences might not be the best or most efficient way to keep the public safe, given that older people rarely commit violent crimes and cost far more to care for behind bars.

"There are dangerous people who may need to go to prison. But we want it to be proportional. Do the time that fits their crime," he says.

Still, like his new boss, Cook has been a vocal critic of even minimal criminal justice reforms. In 2016, Cook took to right-wing media to berate the Obama Justice Department for pushing for shorter sentences for non-violent drug crimes. "Everybody knows that's just absurd. Drug trafficking is inherently violent," Cook said on The O'Reilly Factor.

He doubled down to other outlets. "The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken," Cook told the Washington Post in 2016. "In fact, it's working exactly as designed."

It's not surprising that Cook's star would rise in the Trump era, as he displays many of the qualities rewarded by the administration, such as a willingness to entertain conspiracy theorists and sow panic about crime. In 2016, Cook appeared on Frank Gaffney's radio show, where he agreed with Gaffney's evidence-free claim that people released under Obama's clemency initiative posed a terrorist threat if they'd converted to Islam in prison.

"Well, just look at the Brussels and Paris attackers. Those individuals are individuals who came from neighborhoods fraught with drug dealing and violent crime, people who had been involved in that themselves. The link there is unmistakable," Cook said.

In fact, to even be eligible for Obama's clemency initiative, prisoners had to have been non-violent, not been linked to a gang and had a stellar record while in prison.

Alongside Sessions, Cook fought a bipartisan criminal justice reform package backed by the Koch brothers and Paul Ryan. In written testimony over the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, Cook slammed former Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama, asserting that "in a highly publicized act ... Holder directed all federal prosecutors to limit the use of congressionally mandated minimum sentences against drug traffickers, even when they are caught trafficking in quantities that would trigger application of those penalties."

Going even further, Cook warned, would unleash violent criminals on the streets of America.

"The concern should be obvious: more criminals on the streets will result in more crime," he said.

For reformers, Cook's elevation to Sessions' inner circle is disheartening, to say the least. It signals a pivot back to a Drug War based on fear over evidence of what actually helps curb drug sales and lower addiction rates.

Mark Osler, who worked as a prosecutor in Detroit in the 1990s, points to the major flaw in Sessions' and Cook's reasoning: There's no evidence that putting more people in prison for longer, for doing or selling drugs, has any kind of real impact on the drug trade.

"As incarceration has gone up, we haven't seen a decline in narcotics," Osler tells Rolling Stone. "If we'd been successful in taking down dealers, price would go up and use would go down."

"They never look at narcotics as a business," Osler says of Sessions and Cook. "They look at it as a moral conflict, but it's a business." If you take one person who deals drugs off the street, someone else will take their place. As long as there's a demand for drugs, there will be supply. "In the War on Drugs, the most you can do is slightly raise the price on the street until the market adjusts, because the demand is still there," Osler says.

Lamont Glass, who was prosecuted by Cook in the mid-Nineties, knows this first-hand. The then 25-year-old was caught with approximately 14.9 grams of crack in his underwear, an amount that can fit into a small bag. Earlier, police had busted into his girlfriend's apartment, where they also found a bag of crack.

Glass claims he was offered a stark choice: go to trial and risk a life sentence or take 21 years, so he took the 21 years.

In court documents about his case, under a section called "Victim Impact," the court wrote: "There are no identifiable victims in this case."

"I spent the rest of my 20s, my 30s and half of my 40s in prison," he says. "That is someone's lifetime." 

"It's taking people away from their families for decades," Glass notes. His kids grew up without him – until President Obama commuted his sentence last year.

Now Glass is doing his best, trying to work as much as he can, but most employers are not keen on hiring a felon who spent nearly two decades in prison. Still, he's hopeful. "I'll persevere. I'll make it through this. My wife and daughters are by my side," he says. Of his wife, he says, "I love everything about her. The things she's done for me – she raised the children by herself."

Mark Osler has a theory about why it's hard for some career prosecutors like Cook to admit they were wrong – and, therefore, why the Sessions Justice Department appears certain prison is the answer to drugs and crime.

"When your job is to stand five feet away from someone and say they should be locked up for the rest of their lives, the cost of being wrong is so high. What if it's the wrong guy? What if it's the wrong sentence? You're standing there at their sentence. You see their children. So it shouldn't surprise us that people are that committed," Osler says.

Cook has argued that because drug dealers can't settle their differences in court, and so must resort to more brutal means, the drug trade is inherently violent. Ironically, that's the same argument reformers make for why drugs should be legalized, or at least why astronomically high sentences are not the solution to drugs or violence: If a dealer knows there's a long prison sentence awaiting him, he might be more likely to resort to violence during a police bust.

(The Department of Justice declined Rolling Stone's request for comment from Cook.)

Allison Watson, a former state prosecutor in Tennessee, lost her appetite for the job after accompanying police on a cocaine raid. She was shocked at the level of violence – of how quickly things can go wrong for officers and bystanders.

"We go in, surround a small hotel. There are doors knocked down, people start yelling. It's really scary. Then, I hear a baby crying. I said, 'There's a baby, stop, calm down,' tried to deflate the situation. Next thing I know, I have a newborn baby in one arm, a gun in the other hand," she says.

"What really hit home was how many innocent lives were really at stake, even in this small-time bust. A child, police officers – I was there, I'm a mom," she says.

It's considerations like this that have led even some conservatives to consider criminal justice reform after decades of tough-on-crime rhetoric – that, and the amount of money the U.S. spends jailing people. But the Trump administration, despite pledging a break with policies that don't work, appears unlikely to allow reform to proceed.

"Sessions and Cook are in a position now to make it very difficult," Kevin Ring says. "Republicans in Congress won't want to support reform if a Republican Department of Justice is yelling, 'You're soft on crime!'"