Will Sessions champion criminal justice reform?

Prisons | As a senator, Trump’s attorney general nominee has shown little enthusiasm for proposed changes
by Evan Wilt
Posted 11/22/16, 03:24 pm

WASHINGTON—Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is not typically an easy sell for criminal justice reforms, but advocates hope the attorney general designee will turn a new leaf when it comes to fixing America’s broken justice system.

Each year the United States spends more than $80 billion on its prisons without much success. Many behind bars don’t receive the help they need to turn their lives around: About 40 percent of prisoners return to jail cells within three years of release.

Over the past year, Congress made progress to address current failures within the justice system, passing comprehensive reforms through committees in both the House and Senate. Yet at each step, Sessions, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been a harsh critic of implementing any changes. He fears reducing prison populations and easing sentences could make Americans less safe.

Sessions’ skepticism has not made it easier to pass reforms, but Craig DeRoche, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship, told me that’s not inherently bad.

“Sen. Sessions applies a lot of scrutiny to the bills and the proposals that come before him,” DeRoche said, adding that Sessions first wants to see evidence that changes will increase public safety. “So while he’s been a tough sell, it’s been toward making sure there’s accountability and success in what the reform packages include in them.”

Vocal pressure from Sessions and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has forced lawmakers to rework reform legislation. And in the Senate, DeRoche said the criminal justice reform legislation gets better with each new tweak.

But others see Sessions’ scrutiny differently and worry his confirmation as attorney general could derail current efforts to make prisons better.

“Sen. Sessions has opposed even modest reform,” Kevin Ring, vice president of Families against Mandatory Minimums, told The Guardian. “Whether reform is on just hold, or completely dead, remains to be seen.”

Ring hopes Sessions’ new role will enlighten him to the need for change. 

Sessions vigorously targeted drug crimes as a prosecutor in Alabama before joining Congress in 1997. Reducing sentences for non-violent drug offenders has been a focus for DeRoche, Ring, and lawmakers passionate about the issue. But Sessions has shown little interest in granting clemency to drug offenders.

“You’d have a 25-year-old who’s been selling for a long time getting 15 to 18 years in jail, pretty tough sentences,” Sessions told PBS when asked about minimum mandatory sentences. “But as they say, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

Throughout his campaign and in the weeks since Election Day, President-elect Donald Trump has been quiet about his goals for the criminal justice system. On several occasions he gave vague references to reestablishing “law and order” but has not given specifics on re-working sentencing laws, programs within the prison system, or how to help released prisoners return to society.

But Trump has been open about the loss of his brother Fred to alcohol abuse, an experience DeRoche hopes will move his administration to help those struggling with addiction.

“Trump has first-hand experience here,” DeRoche said. “He knows how devastating drugs can be. We hope that under his direction the Department of Justice will recognize that what we have done in the past in this area has not worked.”

For Prison Fellowship, the biggest areas of need in the criminal justice system are better in-prison programs to help rehabilitate offenders and outside initiatives to help returning citizens achieve success after release. DeRoche noted faith-based programs usually work best, highlighting Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative as an example.

DeRoche is cautiously optimistic for reforms in a Sessions-led Justice Department—particularly for reentry programs.

“[Sessions] has never spoken against people succeeding once they have paid off their debt,” he said. “I think that’s actually an area of public policy where there will be the least amount of opposition.”

Evan Wilt

Evan is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Washington, D.C.

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