RICHMOND, Va. — In remarks before federal, state and local law enforcement on Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions laid out his plan to crack down on what he characterized as a “surge in violent crime,” fueled by, he said, guns, gangs, and drugs.
“My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a ‘blip,’ but the start of a dangerous new trend,” Sessions said, citing FBI data that showed that violent crime increased by almost four percent between 2014 and 2015.
He did acknowledge, however, that the nation’s overall violent crime rate remains near historic lows. The rate of violent crime in the U.S. has fallen 50 percent in the last 25 years.
“Illegal drugs are flooding across our southern border and into cities across our country, bringing violence, addiction, and misery,” Sessions said. “We have also seen an increase in the trafficking of new, low-cost heroin by Mexican drug cartels working with local street gangs. As the market for this heroin expands, gangs fight for territory and new customers and neighborhoods are caught in the crossfire.”
Sessions also mocked claims that his thoughts on marijuana were “unfashionable,” calling pot a “life-wrecking dependency … only slightly less awful” than heroin.
He did, however, tell reporters after his speech that he might keep Obama-era marijuana guidelines allowing states to set their own marijuana regulations.
The remedy for the drug crisis is three-pronged, Sessions said, and would include heightened criminal enforcement of drug laws, treatment programs and concerted drug abuse prevention campaigns, all of which would be coordinated and administered by federal and local law enforcement partners.
War on Drugs, Part II?
Sessions’ proposal, in many ways, looks like President Richard Nixon’s 1971 War on Drugs.
Put forth with equally fiery rhetoric, Nixon’s and Sessions’ declarations called for more law enforcement officials at the federal and local levels, increased enforcement of drug and criminal law and stricter punishments for offenders instead of treatment.
Nixon’s drug war escalated under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, as Reagan championed zero-tolerance and mandatory minimum policies for drug crimes, even those that were nonviolent.
Reagan also signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established a federal death penalty for “criminal enterprise drug offenses.”
Reagan’s wife, Nancy, also began her much-publicized Just Say No campaign at this time, part of her husband’s administration’s public education effort around drug abuse.
Nurtured by a political leadership fixated on “law and order,” prison populations boomed during the 1980s and 1990s.
Because of discriminatory policing and sentencing disparities for offenses involving powder cocaine (for which whites were arrested more) and crack cocaine (the cheaper version, for which blacks were arrested more) the majority of those incarcerated for drug crimes were persons of color.
At present, the Drug Policy Alliance says 57 percent of those incarcerated for drug offenses are black or Latino, “although these groups use and sell drugs at similar rates as whites.”
“The reality is that today there are more African Americans under correctional control in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the civil war began,” said Michelle Alexander, legal scholar and author of “The New Jim Crow.”
Fighting the ‘scourge of drugs’ by putting ‘bad men behind bars’
Long before his remarks Wednesday, Sessions had expressed support for some of the more punitive elements of the so-called war on drugs, including strict mandatory minimum sentences, which he said he didn’t think were “too severe” in a 1999 Frontline interview.
In that same interview, he also declared the war on drugs a “success.”
And though he supported the legislation that changed sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine, he has criticized former President Barack Obama for pardoning those who were sentenced more harshly for crack cocaine crimes, calling those pardons an “abuse of executive power.”
His positions have changed little since 1999, and his strategy for combating drug crime is almost exactly the same as the one he proposed almost 20 years ago in that interview, when he was a senator.
Now, in control of the Department of Justice and having made his position on drugs and violent crime clear, Sessions could easily reintroduce many of his favorite components of the drug war.
Notably, treatment for those living with addiction is part of his plan, but he does not believe treatment alone will be enough to fight the “scourge of drugs.”
Criminal enforcement will, he said, and his promises to ramp it up and “put bad men behind bars” are a potential sign that increased policing and harsh sentencing for drug crimes could reemerge as key parts of U.S. drug policy.
“The new challenge of violent crime in our nation is real,” Sessions said. “And the task that lies before us is clear. We need to resist the temptation to ignore or downplay this crisis. Instead, we must tackle it head-on, to ensure justice and safety for all Americans.”