If making America great means returning to a time of over-privileged white establishment and mass incarceration, then President Trump’s agenda moved a step closer this week with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ policy shift on federal criminal prosecutions. The mid-week announcement rolls back Obama-era administration guidelines on charging and sentencing.
Sessions’ directive to federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious provable charge and longest and most severe associated sentences is a return to an ineffective and expensive war on crime and drugs. Obama-era policies on incarceration and criminal justice reform enjoyed bipartisan support and success during the past eight years, but Sessions — like his boss — seems acutely unaware of educated strategy decisions. While he grandstanded for the press, former prosecutors and policy-makers across the country were left scratching their heads over his personal war against America.
As the country’s prison population has burgeoned since the 1970s, criminal justice reform has become an increasingly hot topic for both state and federal administrations. According to The Sentencing Project — a leading reform non-profit — more than 2 million Americans live behind bars in America. Countless more are subject to some form of government supervision like parole or probation.
The application of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, draconian sentencing guidelines, and the erroneous presumption that harsh punishment deters crime have all come under fire in recent years. Reports sponsored by reform-oriented non-profits like the Brennan Center for Justice and Sessions’ own department have repeatedly debunked the ideas driving tough-on-crime incarceration. Despite the contradictions and lack of empirical data showing any correlation between crime rates and incarceration, Sessions ordered a return to the failed policies of mass imprisonment and long-term sentencing that government leaders and activists have been struggling to correct.
Even before a trial and conviction, an unfortunate corollary of Sessions’ policy is that it will lead to more pressure on the accused. The “throw the book at ‘em” theory of prosecution often scares defendants into plea bargains and false convictions. The American criminal justice system has become reliant on the plea bargain as opposed to the jury trial. According to the Supreme Court of the United States, over 90% of all convictions are a result of some type of plea. Excessive charging and threats of severe punishment, like those advocated by Sessions, adversely influence a defendant’s ability to exercise his constitutional rights in a trial.
This week’s policy shift combined with Sessions’ reticent attitude toward consent agreements concerning police reform demonstrate a possible and unfortunate return to abusive and racially and economically motivated government policing. It is another step backward by the current administration — a step in the direction of antebellum conventions that America has long since outgrown.
The United States is a drop in the bucket in terms of global population, representing just five percent of the world’s people. However, our country holds a disproportionate amount of the planet’s prisoners at 25%. One-quarter of all men, women, and children living behind bars on Earth do so in America. It is not a statistic that contributes to greatness.
President Lincoln had a vision to make America great by eliminating slavery and racism. Franklin Roosevelt strove to lift families and the country from poverty and depression. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sought to elevate America through advances and equal rights. Most recently, President Obama championed criminal justice, police, and prison reform. In each instance, America became greater through progressive social evolution and respect for human rights — setting the bar high enough for the rest of the world to admire.
It is inevitable and a basic principle of physics that time moves in only one direction: forward. America will move forward through the next four years of the Trump presidency regardless of how many times the administration tries to force it backwards. Whether it is the attempted reversal of progressive and effective criminal justice policies or setbacks in the ideals that have made America great without Trump, time will win. The only question is how many Americans will suffer in the Trump Time Machine as it bumbles along uncorrected?