President-elect Donald Trump has named Alabama senator Jeff Sessions to be his new attorney general. This choice bodes poorly for any women’s rights, pro-immigration efforts, civil rights, and very likely for progressive criminal justice reform. Sessions has a reputation of making racist comments, and has proved to have a strict, “law-and-order” attitude toward mass incarceration, much like his new boss.
Most recently, Sessions has been part of a front of several Republican lawmakers who opposed a bipartisan bill to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent crimes and give judges more leeway on sentencing for low-level drug offenses.
Sessions said the bill would “send a message to judges and prosecutors that we’re not interested in people serving sentences anymore.” Mandatory minimums are billed as one of the main contributors to mass incarceration.
Throughout the discussion of the bill, Sessions echoed Donald Trump’s false claim that crime rates are rising. “I think [Trump] highlighted some of the crime surges we’ve seen, and I do think it should require proponents of the federal legislation to re-evaluate their position,” he told the New York Times.
Sessions has also been a vocal critic of president Obama’s effort to commute the long sentences of many non-violent offenders. “President Obama continues to abuse executive power in an unprecedented, reckless manner to systematically release high-level drug traffickers and firearms felons,” he said earlier this year. “The president is playing a dangerous game to advance his political ideology,” he said.
Sessions is a staunch proponent of capital punishment, and marijuana legalization. He once said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
Civil rights groups slammed Sessions for his record, and former and current Department of Justice officials worry that he will reverse some of the reforms put in place by Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch that emphasized holding law enforcement accountable for discrimination.
Sessions has shown, however, that he is capable of changing his mind on criminal justices issues, perfectly reflected in the life of Stephanie Nodd, an African-American woman from Alabama. When he was a federal prosecutor in the early 1990s, he helped send her to prison for 30 years. She was involved in a drug deal, helping people who sold crack cocaine. Crimes involving the drug carried incredibly harsh sentences. “When I arrived in prison, the guards and other women at prison asked me if I had killed someone, because they couldn’t believe my sentence,” she wrote this year for Al.com, an Alabama news website.
In 2010, Barack Obama signed a law that Sessions vocally supported that would reduce the disparity in sentencing between crimes involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. “I definitely believe that the current system is not fair and that we are not able to defend the sentences that are required to be imposed under the law today,” Sessions said. Nodd was able to cut her sentence by 9 years, and was released in 2011.