On his way out the door yesterday, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions took credit for reversing an upswing in violent crime. “We prosecuted the largest number of violent offenders and firearm defendants in our country’s history,” he said in his resignation letter. “We took on transnational gangs that are bringing violence and death across our borders and protected national security. We did our part to restore immigration enforcement. We targeted the opioid epidemic by prosecuting doctors, pharmacists, and anyone else who contributes to this crisis with new law enforcement tools and determination. And we have seen results. After two years of rising violent crime and homicides prior to this administration, those trends have reversed—thanks to the hard work of our prosecutors and law enforcement around the country.”
It is true that the murder and violent crime rates went up in 2015 and 2016 before falling in 2017, but it is ludicrous for Sessions to suggest that he is responsible for that improvement. Leaving aside the limited role that the federal government plays in criminal justice, Sessions wants us to believe that things he did after taking office in February 2017 had an immediate, magical effect on violence, such that there were 3,341 fewer murders that year than in 2016.
So no, I will not remember Jeff Sessions as the attorney general who conquered violent crime in America. Instead I will remember him for much less admirable episodes like these:
1. The time Jeff Sessions told prosecutors to seek the harshest possible penalties against drug offenders. Federal drug penalties are based on weight, without regard to a defendant’s culpability or dangerousness. As a result, nonviolent, low-level drug offenders can qualify for draconian mandatory minimum sentences. In 2013, Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s first attorney general, tried to address that problem by urging federal prosecutors to omit drug weight from charges against nonviolent offenders who did not have leadership roles, significant criminal histories, or significant ties to large-scale drug trafficking organizations. Sessions reversed that policy, telling prosecutors to pursue the most serious provable charges.
2. That time Jeff Sessions opposed sentencing reform. Sessions adamantly resisted legislation aimed at making the criminal justice system slightly less mindlessly punitive, including reforms supported by conservative Republicans. He rejected the distinction between violent and nonviolent drug offenders, insisting that “drug trafficking is an inherently violent business.” He even argued that Holder’s modest restraint on the use of mandatory minimums, which affected something like 500 defendants a year and was not announced until August 2013, caused the 2015 increase in violent crime.
3. That time Jeff Sessions told pain patients to “take some aspirin” and “tough it out.” One way Sessions “targeted the opioid epidemic” was by demanding arbitrary reductions in prescriptions for pain medication, without regard to the impact on bona fide patients. Based on the conviction that “this country prescribes too many opioids,” he urged people suffering from severe pain to emulate White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who stoically refused prescription analgesics after hand surgery. Although “it did hurt,” Sessions said, “you can get through these things.” People with severe chronic pain were flabbergasted. “I could not believe what I was reading,” one told me, “and I thought that has to be somebody who has never experienced really severe pain for any length of time.”
4. That time Jeff Sessions stopped the DEA from licensing new producers of marijuana. The federal government’s monopoly on the legal production of cannabis, which had for decades impeded studies of the plant’s therapeutic benefits, seemed to finally be cracking in 2016, when the Drug Enforcement Administration said it would start accepting applications from additional producers. But so far no licenses have been issued thanks to Sessions’ obstruction, which he has tried to justify with increasingly lame excuses. Sessions hated pot so much that he was prepared to stand in the way of research that could lead to breakthrough treatments for people with debilitating diseases such as epilepsy. Apparently he thinks they, too, just need to tough it out.
5. That time Jeff Sessions threatened to obliterate the newly legal cannabis industry. Sessions, who as a senator declared that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” made noises about shutting down state-licensed cannabusinesses from the beginning of his tenure at the Justice Department. About a year later, he finally got around to withdrawing the Obama-era DOJ memos that discouraged federal prosecutors from targeting state-legal marijuana growers and distributors. Nothing much happened as a result of that shift, mainly because U.S. attorneys were not interested in a crackdown. Furthermore, Sessions’ desire to reverse marijuana legalization was inconsistent with his boss’s promise to respect state autonomy—a principle Sessions also claims to support.
6. That time Jeff Sessions expanded civil asset forfeiture. In 2015, Eric Holder limited the ability of local law enforcement agencies to enlist the Justice Department’s help in dodging state limits on the form of legalized theft known as civil asset forfeiture, which lets cops take money and other property by claiming it is connected to illegal activity even when the owner is never charged with a crime. No longer could run-of-the-mill forfeitures be “adopted” by the DOJ so local cops and prosecutors could benefit from federal rules that make it easier to take people’s stuff and allow them to keep a larger share of the proceeds. Sessions scrapped that reform, because “civil asset forfeiture is a key tool” for law enforcement.
7. That time Jeff Sessions threatened to kidnap the children of people who cross the border without permission. “If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you,” Sessions said in a speech describing the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
8. That time Jeff Sessions violated the Constitution by threatening to withhold grants from sanctuary cities. Another way Sessions tried to “restore immigration enforcement” was by conditioning law enforcement grants on local cooperation with the Trump administration’s efforts to catch and expel people living in this country without the government’s approval. That tactic was immediately challenged in court, and Sessions lost over and over again, because the executive branch does not have the authority to unilaterally attach strings to federal grants approved by Congress.
Scott Shackford may be right that Sessions’ replacement will not be noticeably better. But I will be impressed if he manages to be worse.