Two New Papers: Jeff Sessions’s Criminal Justice Record, the Danger of Using the Justice Department for Partisan Gain

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Two New Papers: Jeff Sessions’s Criminal Justice Record, the Danger of Using the Justice Department for Partisan Gain

NEW YORK - As Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) prepares for his confirmation hearing to be the next Attorney General, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released two analyses today:

  1. Analysis: Sen. Jeff Sessions’s Record on Criminal Justice – Details the senator’s record on sentencing and drug laws, police oversight, reentry programs, and more. The analysis finds, for example, that Sessions helped kill a Republican-led criminal justice reform bill in 2016, which may be revived this session. This follows a long history of support for harsh policies. As U.S. attorney in Alabama, drug convictions made up 40 percent of Sessions’s convictions, double the rate of other Alabama federal prosecutors.
  2. The Justice Department’s Voter Fraud Scandal: Lessons – Explains how the George W. Bush administration used the Department of Justice for partisan gain and wielded its power to disenfranchise voters, resulting in the worst scandal to hit the DOJ since Watergate. The report offers key lessons and guideposts on what conduct the next Attorney General must promise to avoid.

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Criminal Justice

The Brennan Center analyzed Sessions’s past statements, votes, and practices on criminal justice. Our key findings:

  • Sessions opposes efforts to reduce unnecessarily long federal prison sentences for nonviolent crimes, despite a consensus within his own party. In 2016, he personally blocked the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bipartisan effort spearheaded by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and supported by law enforcement leadership. Republican leaders hope to reintroduce the bill this year. As Attorney General, Sessions could stall current congressional efforts to pass this legislation to recalibrate federal sentencing laws.
  • Drug convictions made up 40 percent of Sessions’s convictions when he served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama — double the rate of other Alabama federal prosecutors. Today, state and federal law enforcement officers have begun to focus resources on violent crime, and away from archaic drug war policies. But Sessions continues to oppose any attempts to legalize marijuana and any reduction in drug sentences. As Attorney General, Sessions could direct federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest penalties possible for even low-level drug offenses, a step backward from Republican-supported efforts to modernize criminal justice policy.
  • Unlike many Republican legislators, Sessions supports the use of “civil asset forfeiture,” which allows police to confiscate property from people who may not even be accused of a crime. Sessions could strengthen this practice at the federal level, or vocally oppose any congressional efforts to end it.
  • The Justice Department has brought much-needed oversight to troubled police departments, especially those criticized for excessive use of force on communities of color. Sessions is deeply skeptical of federal involvement in state and local affairs, including policing. As Attorney General, he could end or significantly curtail these investigations. 
  • Most conservatives support reentry programs to help former prisoners better reintegrate into society, keeping them away from repeat crime. It is unclear whether Sessions shares his party’s commitment to these recidivism reduction programs. If he does not support them, Sessions’s Justice Department could end requests to Congress for additional funding, or direct scarce resources away from these programs, potentially driving up the recidivism rate.

“Sessions appears to subscribe to outdated ideas about criminal justice policy that conservatives, progressives, and law enforcement leaders agree do not help reduce crime,” said Ames C. Grawert, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “His views are at odds with Republican leadership, and Sessions even helped kill a modest criminal justice bill last year. The Senate Judiciary Committee should ask Sessions questions about his record, and how he would act as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.”

Voting Rights

After Donald Trump’s extraordinary and unfounded comments about rampant voter fraud, his choice to lead the Justice Department raises serious concerns the agency could be perverted to pursue a partisan political agenda on voting instead of neutral enforcement of national voting laws.

That’s exactly what happened a decade ago, under the George W. Bush administration, when the DOJ was upended by scandal. The Center’s report documents the key elements of the 2007 scandal, including how:

  • The Justice Department’s political leadership fired seven well-respected U.S. attorneys, dismissing some top Republican prosecutors because they had refused to prosecute nonexistent fraud.
  • Senior officials hired career staff members using a political loyalty test, perverted the work of the nonpartisan Voting Section toward partisan ends, and exerted pressure on states and an independent agency to fall in line with an anti-voting rights agenda.
  • The effort backfired badly, touching off a wave of investigations. The scandal forced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign and helped drive George W. Bush’s chief strategist Karl Rove from his job.

To make sure the Justice Department steers clear of scandal and disrepute, the Brennan Center paper calls on Sessions — who has his own troubling past on voting — to promise the American public he will adhere to strict principles expected of Attorneys General if confirmed.

He must avoid enforcement actions driven by politics; hire, assign duties to, and evaluate career staff based on competence, not partisanship; interpret federal voting statutes in ways consistent with their purposes to expand access to voting; and more. It further calls on the U.S. Senate, in its confirmation hearings, to ensure that Sessions will maintain the integrity of the Justice Department and follow the laws and policies that apply to every administration.

“The Justice Department does not work when it is motivated by partisan politics. The country cannot afford another scandal undermining the integrity of the agency in charge of enforcing the federal laws protecting our right to vote,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “Given Sessions’s troubling track record on voting, his Senate colleagues have an obligation to secure his commitment to nonpartisan, evidence-based enforcement of our laws.”

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The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law is a non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. Our work ranges from voting rights to redistricting reform, from access to the courts to presidential power in the fight against terrorism.

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