You might know Donald Trump from, among other things, the Donald Trump Fragrance; Trump Vodka; Trump Steaks; Trump Golf; Trump Buffet; Trump Café; Trump Catering; Trump Model Management; and even Trump Ice, a bottled water company. He is now starring in a publicity stunt called Trump President-elect. (It is only a stunt in that it is real.)
He is terrible, so it follows that his cabinet members would be terrible, as well. Ergo, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.
He's a racist, which we know. And he's sure to be absolutely horrific on federal civil rights enforcement, given his record and his awful previous comments on the Voting Rights Act. Completing the trifecta of devastation? Sessions is a barbarian when it comes to criminal justice policy.
Remember when criminal justice reform was the only forefront issue with bipartisan support? It was just last year, after all. Even if the parties didn't always agree on the details, most everyone had come around to the reality that the justice system is bloated, inefficient, ineffective, and racially biased. Most everyone had realized that low-level drug offenders needed rehab, not prison, and that mandatory minimums were destroying families.
Most everyone, that is, except Jeff Sessions.
From an Atlantic article entitled "Who Can Stop Criminal Justice Reform Now? Very Few People," published last October:
Criminal justice reform is barreling through the Senate and there are few forces left to stop it. The list of supporters for the bill is long and includes the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley and the Majority Whip John Cornyn.
At a mark-up Thursday, the team of senators who toiled away on the bill in obscurity for months stood together against a host of amendments aimed at revealing partisan faultlines in the criminal justice system. Ultimately, the committee voted 15 to 5 to pass a bipartisan reform bill, which now could move for a full vote on the Senate floor.
Here are just some of the things Republicans said about the bill during negotiations, according to Huffington Post:
“This could be a legacy item for the president,” Cornyn said. “I think this is an area where we could do some good, and building as we should on successful state-based programs.”
Prisons, Cornyn added, “shouldn’t just be warehouses for human beings.” [...] “It’s a pretty high priority,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said when asked about the temperature among leadership to act. “And there’s a lot of interest in it on both sides, and there’s frankly quite a bit of agreement from both sides.”
Thune predicted that criminal justice reform has a “better than 50/50” shot of passing both chambers and reaching the president’s desk within Obama’s final year.
“In terms of major legislative initiatives where there’s bipartisan support, there probably aren’t going to be a whole lot of them, but I think this is one,” Thune said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) summed up the difficulty with getting anything done in Obama’s final year given the great divide between the two parties. When asked what Congress can pass this year, he responded, “Uhhhhhhhh, I’m not sure.”
“Oh yeah, there’s consensus building on criminal justice reform,” he added a moment later.
And from The Atlantic:
“I think we are being reasonable at our understanding of what needs to be tweaked so that the system is fair to the criminal challenges that are out there right now,” said Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina.
The first version of the bill included "retroactive active reforms in the bill that applied to inmates who committed crimes while possessing a firearm." Some Republicans, like Ted Cruz, didn't like those parts but voted for the bill anyway. Other Republicans, like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, refused to vote for it.
Still, even with Sessions’ refusal, the bill was still expected to pass. “We can show the American public that senators are grown ups and we can get things done,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy at the time.
Fast forward six months to April, though, and the hope for reform was over. From the New York Times:
[T]he Senate authors of the legislation say it is effectively dead.
“I do believe it is over,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, who put considerable effort into difficult negotiations with Republicans to strike a compromise. “We missed an opportunity.”
What remains is a stunning display of dysfunction given the powerful forces arrayed behind legislation meant to provide a second chance for nonviolent offenders facing long prison sentences while also saving tax dollars on prison costs.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan is on board. The quarrelsome Senate Judiciary Committee passed its bill on a strong bipartisan vote with the imprimatur of Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman. Mr. Obama considers the issue a top priority.
The conservative Koch brothers were behind it. So was the liberal Center for American Progress and just about every advocacy group in between. Polls show the concept has broad public support. States both red and blue already have moved ahead with successful parallel programs. A cross section of law enforcement groups backs it.
Still, the legislation foundered.
Part of the reason? Jeff Sessions. Sessions was against the bill at every turn. From the October Atlantic article:
Sen. Jeff Sessions, a conservative from Alabama, noted the rise in heroin deaths and the sudden increase in violent crime as the reason to oppose [the bill].
“The drive and the pressure to move toward sentencing reform is always there. It is a very seductive call. It is a siren song sometimes,” Sessions said. “My experiences is that it is seldom effective.”
But again, even when provisions that would benefit those convicted of violent crimes were removed, Sessions still didn't support it. The Huffington Post reported in early April that "Sessions questioned whether the bill would 'send a message to judges and prosecutors that we’re not interested in people serving sentences anymore' as 'the crime rate is beginning to go up.'"
This kind of rhetoric is objectively absurd. Here’s a reminder: America incarcerates more people than any country in the world. It has 4 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prisoners. We spend billions of dollars a year on a failing system. The drug war is widely considered to have been an abject failure.
What's more, Trump's fear-mongering around crime has been proven false time and time again. We covered it here in September.
But even though many in the Republican Party are willing to be reasonable and compromise on this issue, Sessions is not one of them. Now it looks like he'll be in charge of the Department of Justice. With Sessions at the helm, it promises to be a very bleak four years.