Sen. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s choice to head the Justice Department, could preside over the end of federal consent decrees over local police practices and moves to cut back on mandatory minimum prison sentences, criminal justice insiders told the American Society of Criminology yesterday.
The Alabama Republican, a well-known hardliner on crime and immigration enforcement, is likely to bring a far different tone as Attorney General from his two immediate predecessors, President Barack Obama appointees Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.
With Trump’s approval, Sessions also could reverse the Obama administration’s largely hands-off attitude toward states that have legalized recreational marijuana use, ASC members were told.
Such measures are contrary to federal law, but the Justice Department under Obama has not prosecuted violations.
At the same time, police interests could get more financial support from Washington during the Sessions regime, given Trump’s frequent praise of law enforcement and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) campaign endorsement of the president-elect.
The FOP “wants more money and less oversight,” said former New Orleans police superintendent Ronal Serpas, now a faculty member at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Sessions supports Justice Department research and evaluation efforts of federal anti-crime programs, according to former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, who worked closely with Sessions during her two DOJ stints. Robinson now is a faculty member at George Mason University.
Robinson was one of five criminal justice experts who addressed the prospects for criminal justice reform under a Trump Administration during the discussion with attendees of the criminology organization, which is holding its annual meeting in New Orleans.
They spoke a few hours after Sessions’ choice was announced. The nominee still must be confirmed by his fellow senators, some of whom will have pointed questions about alleged anti-black remarks by Sessions in decades past.
Among panelists’ observations on several key subjects:
Policing. Trump told the International Association of Chiefs of Police during the campaign that policing generally should be a local issue. Robinson said that might mean a “dramatically lessened” role of the DOJ Civil Rights Division in negotiating court-ordered consent decrees on local police practices. Serpas criticized the “cottage industry” of courts’ naming expensive lawyers to oversee local police departments.
What is uncertain is the continuation of “collaborative reform” efforts between local police departments and the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), or even the COPS office itself. Robinson said DOJ likely will maintain or increase direct federal aid to local law enforcement, especially if it is characterized as “technical assistance” rather than orders from Washington.
Thomas Abt of the Harvard Kennedy School, a former Justice Department official in the Obama administration, noted that most criminal justice is a state or local activity and predicted that “criminal justice reform is not going to stop” there. Some police departments will voluntarily continue reforms along the lines recommended in last year’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, he said.
Drugs. Trump and Sessions probably will support the new federal Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which provides funds for states and localities to deal with the opioid overdose crisis, said Nancy La Vigne of The Urban Institute.
The topic received a great deal of attention from the Republican and Democratic candidates on the campaign trail. As with many other issues, one question is how much money will be approved by a Republican-controlled Congress that includes many members who want to cut back on federal spending.
Another question is whether Trump and Sessions will back a combined “enforcement and public health” approach to the drug problem. One major supporter of such an effort is Trump backer Gov. Chris Christie, but he appears to have lost favor in the Trump presidential transition.
Guns. The National Rifle Association strongly backed Trump, so efforts in Congress to back tougher background check laws for firearms buyers will remain stymied, panelists agreed. At the same time, the new President and Attorney General are likely to agree with the emphasis by the NRA and others on more attention to mental health issues among gun abusers.
Abt noted that voters in three states approved gun-control measures this month, and said that many gun issues will continue to be decided on that level.
Sentencing and prisons. A lengthy campaign to reduce many federal mandatory minimum prison terms seem to be “going nowhere” under Sessions, who was one of the key Senate opponents, said La Vigne. The legislation is backed by many Republicans, and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has expressed support for the concept, but Trump’s support seems unlikely given his “law and order” campaign rhetoric.
Both Serpas and another panelist, criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University, expressed hope that many supporters in Congress and in influential law enforcement circles would keep pressing for sentencing reform and the use of alternatives to costly incarceration.
Abt said that sentencing reform for non-violent offenders still had a “green or yellow light” at the state level with the support of many Republicans.
What’s more, Sessions could drop Holder’s instructions to federal prosecutors nationwide to cut back on the use of mandatory minimums, he said. The result could be an increase in the federal prison population, which has been falling in the last three years.
Evidence-based practices. Despite concerns that Trump may be an “anti-science” president, some panelists expressed hope that recent DOJ policies to base federal anti-crime spending on scientifically proved concepts will continue. Robinson predicted that, “we’re not going to see retrenchment” in that area.
Even if many Justice Department changes are in store, they may not happen very quickly because personnel changes and their requisite background checks take so long.
Robinson predicted “not much movement” on criminal justice policy changes for many months after Trump takes office in January.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.