by Brendan Kennedy
The Department of Justice (DOJ) led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently took a troubling step when it closed an independent commission of scientists meant to improve the accuracy of criminal forensic evidence. The commission was created under the Obama administration after investigations by the National Academy of Sciences, the FBI, and others found that forensic science was largely inaccurate and not particularly scientific. The decision to scrap the commission puzzled many. Unless the goal was an increase in the number of wrongful convictions, the move had no apparent policy objective.
This sort of startling decision may be the new normal for the DOJ. If any of the alarmists who predicted dystopia after Trump’s election are searching for vindication, they need look no further than Jeff Sessions. He has attacked civil rights and liberties, dismissed science, defied common sense, failed to fill critical vacancies in his department, bullied state and local governments, and appealed to our nation’s worst tribalistic tendencies while pushing policies that been proven harmful.
Simply put, Jeff Sessions may be the most dangerous person in Washington.
Sessions’ decision to dismantle the forensic science commission has not been the only time he has spurned science to suit his personal ideology. The Obama administration was known for conducting “pattern and practice” investigations of scrutinized police departments, often finding overwhelming evidence of habitually unconstitutional or discriminatory policing. For departments that needed reform, the DOJ would enter into court-enforced agreements with the local police, known as “consent decrees”.
As incoming Attorney General, Sessions had not read the investigations that these decrees were based on. That did not stop him from dismissing them as “pretty anecdotal and not so scientifically based”. (Unlike Sessions, I have read Obama-era investigations including Chicago and Baltimore, and explored their scientific merits.) Soon after taking his post, Sessions put all existing consent decrees up for review, throwing the planned reforms into uncertainty.
The decision was based on Sessions’ longstanding belief that any reform efforts threaten effective policing. After his decision to review existing decrees, Sessions stated that they could “push back against being out on the street in a productive way” and dubiously linked these decrees with “murder doubling”. This belief in the so-called “Ferguson effect” has mixed and inconclusive evidence. In reality, reform efforts may help police do their job better, with constitutional policing improving trust so that citizens cooperate with police to reduce crime.
Instead of relying on evidence,Sessions has predictably gone with his gut, and reinforced the notion that law enforcement should have broad power to lock up who they please.
Consent decrees are only one area where Sessions has aggressively approached sensible reforms. Sessions and his staff have been fervent supporters of the anti-drug policies of the ‘80s and ‘90s, praising them as crucial policies that locked up “the worst of the worst”. It was under this pretense that Sessions became a leading opponent for bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts, arguing that reforms would benefit “drug traffickers and even other violent criminals.”
Sessions’ approach has left many aghast, with critics pointing out that these comments does not match up with the realities of who gets incarcerated. The policies that Sessions supports have been condemned by everyone from Ted Cruz to Kamala Harris for disrupting communities, targeting nonviolent offenders, elevating the mistrust of police, reinforcing racial gaps in the criminal justice system, and feeding the United States’ obscene levels of incarceration. What’s more, they just don’t work. “Empirical, scientific, peer-reviewed research has shown us that tough on crime, in particular tough on drugs, neither deters people from using drugs nor does it deter people from selling drugs,” says Diane Goldstein, an ex-police commander and current board member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. “It’s a complete failure.”
Simply put, the Sessions DOJ’s stance is that these issues are either nonexistent or part of a properly functioning system. Sessions and his staff seem intent on arguing anyone who is arrested or imprisoned must be a bad person because the criminal justice system only targets bad people. This circular logic does not match with reality, and that attitude has brought disastrous effects.
If Sessions decides to double down on his aggressive ignorance, the country will suffer as a result.
Donald Trump’s first 100 days have been plagued by botched policy rollouts, mixed communication, and organizational struggles. The Department of Justice has been no different, with Sessions providing mixed signals on key policies and failing to adequately staff his department. Sessions has been at the forefront of the administration’s attacks on sanctuary cities and gives a tribalistic and apocalyptic vision of immigration, but his public and private statements have caused confusion over the official stance. Session has also waded into the muddled debate over enforcement of immigration policy. And doubt has arisen over what Sessions’ stance will be on marijuana, a drug he says is nearly as bad as heroin.
The harsh policies that Sessions wants to pursue are further hampered by staffing issues. After dismissing remaining Obama-era attorneys, Sessions has thus far failed to replace them, resulting in 93 unfilled positions in key areas. Major units, such as the civil rights division, still remain without leadership. The high numbers of vacancies mean that the actual implementation of policies will have to be put on hold for the time being.
On the other hand, it may not be a surprise that Sessions has failed to fill the civil rights seat, since early indications show his willingness to whittle away at basic rights across the country. His refusal to address widespread unconstitutional policing, and his eagerness to convict people on shaky evidence, demonstrate Sessions’ disregard for individual rights. This disregard has also put our most basic right in danger.
In recent months, courts have found numerous examples of racially discriminatory voting laws in states like Texas and North Carolina, with both conservative and liberal judges concluding that the laws were unconstitutional. These laws can swing elections and have disproportionately affected minorities. In North Carolina, lawmakers expressly asked for demographic breakdowns of voting patterns before taking away voting opportunities most heavily utilized by black voters.
Despite the evidence and the bipartisan findings of unconstitutionality, Sessions has chosen to not fight these laws in court. The decision could mean open season for legislatures across the country to further restrict voting rights. And if the federal government refuses to do so, private groups like the ACLU will instead be the ones tasked with protecting the Constitution.
Sessions’ policies look like a “greatest misses” list from the past 40 years.
Mass incarceration, a War on Drugs, shoddy forensic science and a see-no-evil attitude towards unconstitutional policing are nothing new, and we have seen the disastrous effects that they can have on American society. But Sessions has also added a mix of menacing new stances on immigration and voting rights. As he continues to craft his team, the Attorney General will start having an easier time implementing his draconian vision and whittling away at individual rights and liberties. By aggressively promoting disastrous policies, both known and unknown, the Attorney General has proven himself to be the most dangerous person in D.C.
|Brendan Kennedy is a senior Political Science and Spanish major at Trinity University from Dripping Springs, Texas. His research focuses on police-community relations in San Antonio, Texas and around the U.S.|
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The photo above was taken by Gage Skidmore, can be found here, and is under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.