Jeff Sessions and Criminal Justice in Massachusetts

Do you know what North Korea and the United States have in common? They have similar per capita rates of incarceration, among the highest in the world. But lately some states have used an approach called justice reinvestment to dramatically cut the number of people in prison while continuing to lower crime rates, saving money in the process. In Massachusetts, a few bills are up for a vote this legislative session that take this approach to justice reform.

The “Tough on Crime” approach that came into vogue in the 80s and 90s led to an explosion in the prison population (especially when applied to non-violent drug crimes) but only a limited reduction in crime. It just isn’t a very efficient use of taxpayer money.

Justice reinvestment takes a different approach. It shrinks the number of inmates by reducing sentences and removing mandatory minimums for some crimes, restoring judicial discretion in sentencing, and expanding the use of parole. In contrast, over the past few decades Massachusetts has drastically cut the number of prisoners receiving parole, instead letting half of former inmates be flung back into society without any form of supervision. This makes them more likely to reoffend. Other proven ways to reduce recidivism are counseling, education, reentry, and jobs programs.

A few pieces of legislation have been proposed in the Massachusetts legislature that take this approach. HD.2714/SD.1128, An Act for justice reinvestment, is a comprehensive justice reform package. Among other things, it reduces sentences and calls for funding of jobs programs, not only for former inmates but also for people who fit at least two of these categories:

“is under 25 years of age; is a victim of violence; is a veteran; does not have a high school diploma (if over 18 years of age); has been convicted of a felony; has been unemployed or has had family income below 250% of the federal poverty level for six months or more; or lives in a census tract where over 20% of the population fall below the federal poverty”

HD.1794/SD.500 An Act to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences with regards to drug crimes, is a bill with just a few parts of HD.2714/SD.1128. It gets rid of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and gives judges discretion in sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses.

A related bill is SD.1389: An Act to reduce the criminalization of poverty, that reduces court fees and bans sending people to jail for inability to pay the fees.

At the national level, the appointment of Jeff Sessions warrants some concern for those who value justice.

The power of the U.S. Attorney General lies in three things:

  1. Setting priorities for federal law enforcement about what kinds of things to investigate.

  2. Deciding what laws to defend and which cases to bring to federal court.

  3. Selectively giving money to states and towns.

Sessions is unlikely to devote many resources to issues progressives care about. For instance, he may not investigate excessive use of force by police. He holds the view that bad behavior is caused by a few bad apples rather than any systemic problems. To his credit, he has admitted that there is some racial bias in policing, but he has regularly opposed federal investigation into police misconduct. With a president who has called Black Lives Matter a “threat” that should be investigated by the Attorney General, this is not an encouraging sign.

He will likely not do much to uphold civil rights, especially not LGBT rights--he is a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage. Although the Constitution and federal law bans discrimination of various types, it doesn’t matter what the law says if it isn’t enforced.* Fortunately Massachusetts and other states can take it upon themselves enforce to enforce similar state-level protections.

So what will he focus on instead? We can expect that he will vigorously support Trump’s policies on deporting undocumented immigrants and probably enforce the Muslim ban. (He’s no Sally Yates, bless her heart.) He twice tried to pass legislation to make English the official language of government, i.e. removing your right to get government services in a language you understand. I think it’s fair to say he’s not a friend to immigrants.

Many have been upset over allegations that he is racist but less attention has been given to his opposition to legalizing marijuana. He has even said that “Good people don’t smoke marijuana”. Massachusetts and the other states and cities that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana could face increased federal interference. The Obama administration generally declined to enforce the federal laws in such places, to allow the fledgling experiment in legalization a chance to show results. Left alone, it may succeed or it may fail, and in either case we will have a better sense of what works. Under Sessions, as marijuana business owners and employees face prison and banks risk having their assets seized if they loan to these businesses, the prospects for success are dim. It would be a shame to undo decades of work, especially now that even many Republicans have become open to a softer approach to drug enforcement.

Sessions has many other troubling positions, too many to name here. For instance, he favors private prisons, so he may undo the DOJ’s recent moratorium on private federal prisons.

There are many threats to civil liberty under Sessions and Trump, so it is up to us at the state and local levels to defend and make lives better for our fellow citizens. We can start by passing HD.2714/SD.1128, HD.1794/SD.500, and SD.1389.

*As a fun example, Obama Attorney General Eric Holder stopped defending Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in court, before the Supreme Court finally declared it unconstitutional. That made Jeff Sessions really angry.



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