Sessions looks eager to re-open the “war on drugs” — or, more appropriately, the war on poor people who use drugs. No available metric on this decades-long war shows any significant success in limiting access to drugs in the United States or in reducing addiction to controlled substances.
What the “war on drugs” has been good at is: stigmatizing poor people afflicted with the disease of addiction; profiling black and brown folks and arresting them at rates exponentially greater than their white counterparts; and creating revenue streams for the Prison Industrial Complex.
In early 2016 there was a modicum of hope for reforming the criminal justice system. The United States’ incarceration rates and numbers seemed to plateau, though the country still jailed a greater percentage of its citizens than any other nation (and still does.)
Reform had also seemed possible when Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal penitentiary in 2015. His visit signaled the gravity of America’s incarceration problem. It also humanized the socially invisible inmates, forcing both lawmakers and citizens to rethink the effects of decades’ long mass incarceration policies.
Indeed, many conservatives have now joined liberals in advocating lesser charges for minor drug offences. Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced bipartisan legislation for criminal justice reform in 2014. Meanwhile scholars like Michelle Alexander, in her remarkable “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” and filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, in “13th,” are among many thought leaders and scholars arguing for change in the public square.
But Trump changed the discussion. With his Inaugural Address, he depicted a bleak America and embraced the conservative fantasy of “law and order.”
It was another example of Trump’s s affinity for President Richard M. Nixon. During the campaign, Trump labeled supporters “the silent majority,” the term Nixon applied to voters who supported his Vietnam War policies and law-and-order agenda.
The historical fact is that Nixon’s “law and order” policies were part of his “Southern Strategy” to win over white Southern Democratic voters. Today, law and order is used to suggest, incorrectly, that crime rates are high (they are low relative to the 1990s). The rhetoric is also a dog whistle of divisiveness to Trump’s constituency. The consequences of aggressive policing have serious negative outcomes in poor communities of color.
Sessions' success will be key if Trump wants to make good on his law-and-order promises.
Sadly, it is working. The Justice Department is slowly transforming into an injustice department right before our eyes.
Mass incarceration, its impact on families and communities and the often racially biased ways in which its policies operate is still one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time. It’s a shame that, in the era of Trump, we are unable to effectively address the challenges we face.
James Braxton Peterson is the author of three books, including “Prison Industrial Complex for Beginners.”