By Udi Ofer
Attorney General Jeff Sessions knows that the United States is the world’s leading incarcerator. We imprison more people than any other nation in the world. But apparently he likes that distinction because he just doubled down on it, guaranteeing that more people will be locked up for drug offenses in America’s federal prisons.
Yesterday Sessions issued a new policy reversing the work done by former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to reduce long mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
The 2013 Holder policy, as well as other federal and state reforms, was beginning to work. In 2015, the incarcerated population in the United States fell to its lowest level since 2004. The number of people in state and federal prisons dropped by 2.3 percent, with 40 percent of that drop due to fewer people in the federal Bureau of Prisons. In fact, President Obama was the first president in at least 40 years to leave office with a smaller federal prison system than he started with.
Overall, crime rates backed up this new strategy. Crime peaked in the United States in 1991, and today’s crime rate is less than half what it was in 1991. While there are some troubling increases in crime in specific cities, Americans are living in one of the safest periods in recent American history.
So when most Americans learned that the incarceration rate in the United States began to decrease and that overall crime rates were at historic lows, they cheered the news. Advocates on the right and left called it a good beginning, the dawning of a new era of a smarter and more equitable criminal justice system, while at that same time recognizing that there is much more work to be done.
President Donald Trump and his attorney general don’t like this new direction, and they’re doing everything in their power to paint a disturbing and even apocalyptic vision of America — one that is now being used to justify draconian policies that will lead to more Americans in prison.
Listening to Attorney General Sessions and to President Trump, you would think that America is living through a crisis of crime. Sessions constantly talks about a crime epidemic, selectively using statistics in a way that is misleading, and sometimes even outright lying. In his swearing in, Attorney General Sessions talked about a “dangerous permanent trend” of increasing crime. Yet that was a lie. There is no evidence of a national crime wave, as right now we’re living at a time when the crime rate is historically low.
But with this new directive, Attorney General Sessions is now implementing policies based on lies and misleading facts. He is directing federal prosecutors to increase a failed War on Drugs that has devastated the lives of millions of Americans, ripping apart families and communities, particularly Black people and other people of color, in a vicious cycle of incarceration. And he has already issued an order that will lead the federal government to rely more on private prisons, whose bottom line will increase under Attorney General Sessions’ new order.
If there is any good news to report, it’s that the American people are fighting back. From state legislatures to the ballot box, the American people have said with a clear voice that they want commonsense reforms to sentencing and drug policies, not a return to the draconian policies that have already cost us too much. Each day the ACLU and our allies on the right and left are fighting for an end to mass incarceration. From Louisiana and Texas to Pennsylvania and California, the movement to end mass incarceration is thriving in the states and in cities.
And there is nothing that Attorney General Sessions can do to stop this peoples’ movement.
Udi Ofer is the Deputy National Political Director and Director of Campaign for Smart Justice, ACLU