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Jeff Sessions is slowly but surely undoing America's criminal justice progress

Sessions’ Justice Department might be the most effective unit of the Trump administration.
A man on a mission.
A man on a mission. Susan Walsh / A man on a mission.

The Russia investigation may be undercutting Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ credibility, but it has not undermined his efforts to take the U.S. Justice Department back in time.

The time Sessions wants to go back to features an unforgiving system of mass incarceration that disproportionately targets people of color in a legal structure too often stacked against them.

To do this, the attorney general has issued a slew of policy rollbacks — unfortunate for a Justice Department that was only incrementally making progress toward equal justice under President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.

In this sense, Sessions’ Justice Department might be the most effective unit of the Trump administration. If Trumpism’s goal is, at least in, part to destroy the progress achieved under the Obama administration, Sessions’ scorecard so far outstrips his GOP colleagues in the Cabinet and former colleagues in the Senate.

In March, for example, the nation’s top law enforcement officer visited St. Louis, next-door to Ferguson, ground zero for the Black Lives Matter movement. Sessions was in St. Louis talking about crime initiatives but also seeming to criticize one of the most useful tools for documenting police brutality: civilian cell phone videos. The choice of venue could not have been a coincidence. By focusing on “targeted police killings,” he deflected attention from the challenges now confronting law enforcement.

In fact, Sessions has had little to say on how the Justice Department might address matters of police brutality, much less on the matter of Black Lives Mattering. Instead, he has mostly showcased President Donald Trump’s belief that strong policing and incarceration are key to maintaining law and civil order.

Trumpism’s goal is, at least in part, to destroy the progress achieved under the Obama administration.

Almost immediately after Sessions was sworn in, he rescinded an Obama administration memorandum to phase out the federal justice system’s use of private prisons. Though Obama's guidance would not have ended the scourge of the Prison Industrial Complex, it was a crucial step in the reform process.

Private prisons are less efficient, provide diminished access to health care and can often be vulnerable to corruption. They operate on market principles rather than societal or community ones. Some are incentivized to warehouse human beings.

Our mass incarceration problem is compounded by overly aggressive policing. In some cities or regions, federal review of local law enforcement has been able to serve as a check when policing goes wrong. But Sessions has registered his distaste for federal oversight of local law enforcement. This may signal an end to consent decrees — a critical process developed in wake of the 1994 uprising in Los Angeles following the Rodney King trial. Consent decrees allow the federal government to enter into court-enforceable agreements with local police forces, based on DOJ reports documenting civil rights abuses.

The Obama Justice Department’s report on the Ferguson police department was among the most damning. While Sessions dismissed the data as “anecdotal,” the report noted that two-thirds of African Americans living in Ferguson accounted for more than 90 percent of the arrests between 2012 and 2014.

Sessions has also “empowered” U.S. attorneys to seek the harshest penalties possible for drug crimes. This is a direct reversal of Holder's efforts to reform draconian drug laws that systematically targeted poor people of color.

It is as if Sessions’ Justice Department is operating on a set of alternative facts. Because the statistics are well known: Whites and blacks use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates, and African Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population. Yet law enforcement records are remarkably different for each demographic. According to Human Rights Watch: "Black adults are more than two-and-a-half times as likely as white adults to be arrested for drug possession. In 2014, Black adults accounted for just 14 percent of those who used drugs in the previous year but close to a third of those arrested for drug possession." In many states, a felony conviction also means losing the right to vote.

It is as if Sessions’ Justice Department is operating on a set of alternative facts.

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.”