Sessions’ Latest Move Is Gruff On Crime, Not Tough On Crime

Patrick Wohl Former Rand Paul Campaign Staffer
Font Size:

Much in line with the administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to be building a wall of his own, albeit metaphorically, to prevent any work between Republicans and Democrats on criminal justice reform – and it just got ten feet higher.

Sessions laid the first brick on Thursday by issuing a memo to federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

While Trump has promised to be tough on crime, ideas like this will only make the problems in our system worse.

The polarized political environment of the last few years has made it nearly impossible for both parties to agree on anything, but reforming our criminal justice system has bucked that partisan trend.  So as changes continue to be rolled out, it’s important for Republicans to remember that not everything coming from the lips of the administration is a Republican idea, even if it’s packaged as one.

Republican leaders across the country – including Speaker Ryan – have called for changes on how we deal with mandatory minimum sentencing as it relates to drug offenses.  Given this, others in the GOP need to point out that calling for criminal justice reform isn’t being soft on crime and that policies like the one announced last week are opposed by many.

Not only will Sessions’ most recent initiative to federal prosecutors not solve any problems, but it will make them even more profound by burdening an already overcrowded prison system.  And while some may support his directive, it’s crucial to note that his memo doesn’t target serious drug offenders, but rather reverses changes applying to those who have little to no significant criminal record, aren’t members of a gang or drug traffickers, and who are totally nonviolent.

If some party loyalists are still comfortable with this, then the sheer financial implications of his move should cause concern.  The cost of keeping a person behind bars is astounding – up to $168,000 a year in some cases.  That’s why focusing instead on anti-recidivism programs and drug counseling isn’t just good for those who commit these nonviolent crimes, it’s good for the American taxpayer.

The costs don’t stop at the prison gate though. When these same low-level drug offenders leave, they are essentially forced into an endless cycle of poverty that’s all but impossible to escape.  Two thirds of prisoners are unemployed or underemployed even five years after their release.  And when people can’t find work, they rely on federal assistance where eligible.  If Republican leaders want to keep Americans from relying on government, they’d be wise not to force them to do so by unnecessarily throwing them into jail.

Mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses have also had a very disastrous racial impact on our country.  At incredibly disproportionate rates, black and Latino men are put in prison for drug offenses.  And while some may say they commit these crimes at higher rates, the opposite is true.  Studies have shown that white men use drugs at equal or higher rates but young black men are ten times more likely to be arrested.

So in their attempt to be “tough on crime,” Trump and Sessions are pursuing policies that are gruff on crime.  It’s up to other Republicans to speak clearly and unequivocally that spending more taxpayer dollars, jailing more non-violent people, and creating a larger racial schism in this country is not a Republican ideal.  The GOP must build consensus on the issue of criminal justice reform – not more walls.

Patrick Wohl is a former campaign staffer for Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens