Jeff Session hints at plan to ratchet up the war on drugs

March 9, 2017, 5:20pm

Attorney General Jeff Sessions says fighting violent crime is his top priority, and in a memo released Wednesday, the former Alabama Senator dropped a hint as to how he’d like to achieve that — through reviving the wildly unpopular and largely unsuccessful war on drugs.

During the Obama administration, politicians from both sides of the aisle conceded that the war on drugs had not, in fact, solved violent crime, and, rather, led to soaring prison populations, costing the federal government about $80 billion annually (an estimated $1 trillion when you account for the fiscal burden on welfare as a result of mass incarceration),disproportionately pulling poor, vulnerable or minority communities into the dragnet of the criminal justice system.

But that appears to be the focus of the Trump administration’s Department of Justice. In a new memo released Wednesday, Sessions emphasized that “addressing violent crime must be a special priority,” and called for federal authorities and local law enforcement to crack down on drug trafficking as a means to reduce violent crime.

“Disrupting and dismantling those drug organizations through prosecutions under the Controlled Substances Act can drive violent crime down,” Sessions wrote. One way, he said in an appearance on conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt’s show, would be by prosecuting marijuana. Asked whether he would pursue federal racketeering charges (or “RICO” charges) for dispensaries selling marijuana, he replied, “We will enforce the law.”

It’s not clear exactly what Sessions has in mind; the memo merely promises “further guidance and support in executing this priority.” Legal experts consulted by Politico speculate that Sessions may be on the verge of throwing out policies set by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2010 and 2013, which instructed prosecutors to avoid pursuing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses — a sentencing scheme that was seen as one of the primary drivers behind mass incarceration.

But Phil Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, says that the memo is just another example of “grandstanding to create a moral panic and generally confuse the public.” Stinson says, the memo left him “scratching his head,” mostly because federal, state and local law enforcement agencies already work together to crack down on violent drug-related crime.

“It is more in the realm of political crime control rhetoric to make it look like the Attorney General has a new idea,” Stinson said. “He doesn’t.”

New ideas or not, criminal justice reform continues to have support in Congress.

And on both sides of the aisle. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to create a National Criminal Justice Commission, which would be tasked with analyzing the criminal justice system and come up with ideas to reform it.