US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, referenced rising rates of violent crime in a recent speech. Indeed, the murder rate increased 11% in 2015, particularly in cities like Baltimore, Memphis, Milwaukee, and Chicago (Gass, 2017). Sessions’ background is an important shaper of his response to the recent uptick in violence. Sessions was a prosecutor in the 1980’s, and his recent critics argue that his approaches to fighting crime, have not moved far beyond those of the 1980s (Jackman, 2017). For example, in a March memo, Sessions, quite arbitrarily ordered prosecutors to seek the harshest penalties possible (Cevallos, 2017). It is expected that sessions will take a hard line on mandatory minimum sentencing as well. However, it would be difficult to find evidence that this measure will bring those levels down.
Disregard for Scientific Evidence
What has not been noted is what Sessions didn’t say. In his speech, Mr. Session’s merely mentioned the need for prevention in a single sentence, yet after the stand-alone statement, he quickly abandoned the idea and returned to his focus on incarceration. What scientific evidence tells us is that treatment, reentry programs (i.e. job training), and prevention are far more effective approaches to fighting drug crime than incarceration (Gass, 2017; Kerman, 2017; Rhodan, 2017). Moreover, the Federal Sentencing Commission and the National Research Council indicate that lengthy prison sentences are ineffective crime control methods (Kerman, 2017). The US criminal justice system, based on its spending, continues to favor punishment over rehabilitation and prevention (Cevallos, 2017). Mr. Sessions memo and speech contributes to the already existing punitive imbalance. What motivates a policy so lacking in 21st-century logic? Who benefits?
Among the direct beneficiaries is the $20 billion-dollar prison industrial complex. Black people’s presence in prisons across the country already fuels the industry in the form of jobs created, building contracts, telephone services, bussing services, medical services, and purchase of products and services (Weatherspoon, 2014). As incarcerated populations are not counted among the unemployed and mostly vote democratic, Sessions policy is likely to undermine democratic voting power while also allowing the Trump administration to claim economic improvement by hiding a significant portion of its otherwise unemployed population (for example, most Black men in prison were unemployed at the time of incarceration) (Stewart, 1994).
What Can Black People Expect
With the implementation of Sessions’ order, Black people must have expectations based on historical precedent and scientific evidence. Racism is endemic to sentencing, therefore Black people can expect to absorb a disproportionately larger share of the sentencing increases that Sessions has called for. For example, a Washington State Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System found that Black offenders received harsher sentences for drug offenses than similarly situated Whites (Weatherspoon, 2014). Prosecutors seeking the harshest sentencing may also result in overworked, inexperienced public defenders compelling more Black defendants to admit to crimes they did not commit to negotiating for shorter sentences. It is also likely that harshest penalties and increased mandatory minimums will result in more fragmented families as judges and prosecutors will have less discretion to be lenient to certain offenders based on the circumstances of their offenses. Finally there is what Michelle Alexander calls the final phase of the mass incarceration process, which includes punishments that isolate Black people from the mainstream economy. She calls this final phase, invisible punishment, which begins after prisoners are released from prison. Largely outside of public view, they prevent convicted offenders from integrating into mainstream society. In this phase, they are legally discriminated against by way of denial of employment, housing, education, and public benefits (Alexander, 2010).
November 6, 2018
As midterm elections approach it will be critical that Black voters demand that elected officials have policies that include a commitment to treating drug abuse as a public health issue. It is time to convert popular Black resistance movements into a viable political party in the tradition of the Gary Convention. Moreover, officials that Black people vote for must have policies that place emphasis on reentry programs, prevention, and drug treatment…… However, in a White supremacist society it is not likely that this will happen speedily at levels that will provide measurable protection to the Black community from the regressive policies of the Trump administration. Recognizing this may compel Black public health professionals and criminal justice professionals to develop independent community-based crime prevention programs, job training programs, and drug treatment programs customized for Black people. Independent Black professional innovation is the only reliable failsafe for the Black future.
Attorney general jeff sessions delivers remarks on violent crime to federal, state and local law enforcement. (2017). States News Service .
Cevallos, D. (2017). Jeff sessions takes wrong turn on crime. CNN Wire.
Gass, H. (2017). Why some worry Jeff Sessions' crime-fighting approach is out of date. The Christian Science Monitor,.
Jackman, T. (2017). Sessions takes federal crime policy back to the '80s. The Washington Post.
Kerman, P. (2017). Tough on crime still racist. USA Today,
Rhodan, M. (2017). Sentencing reversal angers both sides. Time, 189(20), 11.
Stewart, J.B. (1994). Neoconservative attacks on Black families and the Black male: An analysis and critique. In R.G. Majors and J.U. Gordon (Eds.), The American Black male. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, pp. 40-68.
Weatherspoon, F. (2014). African-American males and the U.S. justice system of marginalization: A national tragedy. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
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