Fifty years after the Kerner Commission set in motion a national effort to fix racial inequities in the justice system, a draft strategic plan crafted by the Attorney General threatens to reopen all our old wounds—and perhaps create new ones, say two reform advocates.
It has been difficult to keep track of an administration that cut its teeth on reality TV—an administration that seems to have an endless supply of daily distractions and made-for-TV scandals.
In addition to degrading the office of the president, these distractions draw our attention away from misguided, consequential policy that can impact millions. A draft version of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ five-year strategic plan for the Department of Justice (DOJ), obtained by the Huffington Post, is one example.
Pivoting away from civil rights, human rights and criminal justice reform, all of which were central to former Attorney General Eric Holder’s previous plan, the DOJ under Sessions will focus on aggressive counterterrorism, securing the borders and enhancing immigration enforcement, and promoting respect for First Amendment rights.
Sessions’ strategy is based on the false premises that violent crime is rising, that conservatives aren’t allowed to freely peddle hate speech on college campuses, and that immigrants are dangerous.
His plan would force federal prosecutors to seek maximum penalties for non-violent drug offenses, unnecessarily increase the federal prison population, and lead to increased criminalization of immigrants and more deportations.
These are all strategies that tear families apart. They won’t do anything to make our communities safer.
And they will inevitably lead to people of color being even more disproportionately harmed by the criminal justice system.
In order to compensate for the inevitable increases of mass incarceration, one of the very first orders of business for Sessions’ DOJ was repealing a directive by then-President Barack Obama to decrease the Bureau of Prisons’ reliance on privately run prisons.
In many ways Sessions’ wish list is already being carried out. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests of immigrants with no previous criminal conviction increased by 146 percent last year.
Moreover, Sessions is trumpeting a blatantly misleading narrative that claims undocumented immigrants are causing a so-called ‘spike’ in violent crime.
It is a painful historic irony that Sessions is leading a contemporary assault on civil rights on the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission, which President Lyndon Baines Johnson established in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination to examine and provide recommendations for addressing the discrimination and violence facing black Americans.
Upon Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship in 1986, Coretta Scott King warned Congress:
The appointment of Jefferson Sessions to the federal bench would irreparably damage the work of my husband…and countless others who risked their lives and freedom over the past twenty years to ensure equal participation in our democratic system.
Sessions was rightfully kept off the bench back then, but is now threatening to undo the critical and hard-fought civil rights progress achieved over the last 50 years, and particularly the gains made under the Obama administration.
On this anniversary of the Kerner Commission, we should be reminded that black men in our country receive sentences that are 20 percent longer than white men for the same exact crimes. Put simply, our country has failed to provide African Americans equal protection under the law.
As a result, the share of blacks in U.S. prisons or jails has almost tripled since 1968, and there are more black men behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850.
After decades of advocacy, including by people directly impacted by the justice system, the federal prison population fell under Obama for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in office.
Under Sessions’ directives, the federal prison population will certainly begin to grow again.
Americans concerned about justice and fairness must cut through the noise to protect the civil rights advances of recent years—and not let this administration turn back the clock by pressing forward this type of strategic plan under the radar.
Brent Cohen is Interim CEO and Vice President of JustLeadershipUSA. He previously served as Senior Advisor to the Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice. Marc Schindler is Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute. He previously served as General Counsel and Interim Director of the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. They welcome readers’ comments.