On August 23, President Trump went after Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation, belittling his character by asking “what kind of man is this?” For his part, Sessions declared that he wouldn’t let political considerations influence the Department of Justice (DOJ). This war of words between the executive office and the DOJ has led to some notable Republicans, such as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), suggesting that Trump fire Sessions. And, in this, the lawmakers are correct — but their reasoning is all wrong.
Trump shouldn’t fire Sessions because he recused himself from the Mueller investigation or because he won’t prosecute Hillary Clinton for her email scandal. Sessions should be fired because of his woeful performance as attorney general, which has resulted in a gross reversal of the progress that criminal justice reformers have made in the past few years.
Sessions has expanded the DOJ’s reach and power during his tenure, especially when it comes to enforcing federal drug laws. Under former President Barack Obama, the DOJ issued the Cole Memorandum, which ordered U.S Attorneys to shift away from enforcing federal marijuana laws in states that had legalized marijuana back in 2013. This focused their resources on more serious crimes, effectively allowing for pot legalization at the state level. But Sessions reversed the Cole Memo in January 2018, heightening fear of a marijuana crackdown in states which have legalized the drug, like Colorado and Washington. This was an appalling act of hypocrisy from an administration that once promised to respect states’ rights to legalize the drug.
In opposition to the Trump administration’s flip-flopping, Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) promised to block DOJ appointments unless the Cole Memo decision was reversed. This resulted in a months-long standoff that only ended when President Trump promised in April 2018 to support congressional efforts to respect state decisions on marijuana legalization.
Sessions hasn’t just fought to preserve the drug war; he’s also put up roadblocks to sentencing reform––or reducing the length of prison sentences for non-violent drug crimes––which is one of the few areas where many Republicans and Democrats can agree in this turbulent political atmosphere.
Trump has signaled his support for prison reform, but, due to Sessions and other “tough on crime” Republicans, sentencing reform has been put on the backburner—meaning people will continue to languish in prisons for non-violent drug offenses. President Trump has constantly stressed the importance of family, yet thousands of fathers and mothers are still in prison for non-violent offenses, waiting to be reunited with their families.
In addition to opposing sentencing reform, Sessions has directed U.S attorneys to seek the toughest sentences possible and to strictly enforce mandatory minimums sentencing laws which require judges to condemn offenders to “a specified minimum prison term for a specific crime,” regardless of mitigating circumstances. These mandatory minimums have unfairly targeted minorities since the 1990s, resulting in millions of minorities (mostly African-American men) getting locked up for non-violent drug offenses, such as marijuana possession.
Sessions also reversed the Obama administration’s decision to limit donations of military equipment to local police forces, saying the restraints kept law enforcement from effective performance in their jobs. But the move from the Obama DOJ had come in the wake of the Ferguson riots, where police officers clashed with protesters over the death of Michael Brown and looked more like an occupying army in Afghanistan than a police force protecting America’s streets.
A 2018 study from the National Academy of Sciences showed that police militarization reduces public trust in law enforcement and could lead to the unjust targeting of minority communities. But law enforcement relies on the public trust to function—without it, officers cannot do their jobs effectively. When communities refuse to work with police to solve crimes, the long-standing grievances between police and minority communities only continue to fester.
Last year, pro-criminal justice reform Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) warned of Sessions’ sentencing plans, writing that Sessions’ guideline changes would only “accentuate injustice in our criminal justice system.”
Paul was right then, and he’s right now.
That’s why Trump must fire Jeff Sessions and appoint an attorney general who respects states’ rights, will not enforce unjust drug laws, and will refuse to oppose bipartisan criminal justice reform that can improve the lives of those unfairly sentenced for non-violent crimes. Sessions has repeatedly demonstrated that he’ll oppose any kind of bipartisan criminal justice reform, no matter how incremental. The attorney general has made clear his aim to put anti-marijuana hysteria over the conservative principle of federalism — and he’s willing to use the federal government to do so.
Sessions has to go.
Elias Atienza is a Young Voices contributor. Follow him on Twitter at @elias_atienza.