During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised for months that he would be the "law and order" candidate. So it was no surprise when he nominated Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to head the Justice Department. Sessions' views on crime and punishment are similar to Trump's, and would make Torquemada proud.
From what we have seen so far, Sessions will lead the most tone-deaf Justice Department since at least Richard Nixon. One area of concern for many about the direction of federal law enforcement over the next few years is on the topic of youth incarceration. A new poll says the American public wants alternatives to jail for young offenders, but Sessions thinks jail is exactly where they belong.
Youth First is a national organization working for juvenile justice reform. A recent poll conducted by the group found that overall, 78 percent of those surveyed think there should be options other than prison for juvenile offenders. Included in that number are 68 percent of Republicans who agree that jail is not the best choice for most teens convicted of a crime.
Sessions doesn't appear to be interested in polls. He is also not interested in facts. Last week he claimed that the recent increase in violent crime was the start of a national, permanent trend. That came on the heels of Trump's lie that the murder rate is the highest it has been in 47 years.
Juvenile crime has followed the same downward trend as adult crime. But, just as with adult crime, Sessions doesn't think the way to go is to continue programs that keep young offenders out of jail. No, let's lock 'em up. The more the better.
The Guardian reports that Sessions has long been a fan of incarceration-based strategies for dealing with juvenile crime. In a Senate speech in 1999 he said,
"I have been met sometimes with resistance from those who say the answer to juvenile crime is more prevention programs. I really am not opposed to prevention programs, but I believe many of these programs that work through the juvenile court system are indeed the best prevention programs that you can have."
Missing from that statement is one simple fact: if a juvenile offender is processed through the court system, the only prevention possible is for future offenses. So Sessions would prefer to do nothing until a teen is arrested, and only then let the courts determine how to keep that teen from committing another crime.
But the best prevention program is one that Sessions and his boss appear to have little interest in: Education. Consider this shocking fact: 85 percent of all juveniles who are processed through the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate. In addition, over 50 percent of them suffer from mental illness, and half of those have multiple diagnoses. Prison and youth "boot camps" will do almost nothing to address any of those issues.
The model for juvenile justice reform has been out there for some years, and it comes from a somewhat surprising place -- Missouri. The website Invisible Children explained the Missouri "miracle" in a 2009 post:
Missouri went from 90% recidivism in its juvenile justice system to about 10% over just a few years as it transitioned into a restorative justice model that treated youth as children in need of counseling instead of adult criminals (about 30% of American youth are tried in adult courts).
Imagine that. It actually works to treat kids like people who need help and guidance, rather than incorrigible criminals who should be locked up with other criminals.
Given that Missouri is a "red" state, you might think that the Trump/Sessions Justice Department would be interested in what they were able to accomplish in terms of dealing with juvenile offenders. But don't expect Sessions to listen to ideas about what actually works. No, he has to get those dangerous young "thugs" off the streets, and prison is where he believes they belong.
As The Guardian points out, there are very few juvenile offenders in the federal justice system. The vast majority of juvenile cases are handled by the states, where the number of incarcerated youth has been cut in half since the late 1990s. But the federal Justice Department sets the tone and can exert pressure on states to move in certain directions on matters of crime and punishment.
Sessions is setting up what could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if he chooses to push states to abandon counseling and education programs in favor of a "get tough" policy on youthful offenders. U.S. prisons are not particularly good at producing positive outcomes, but what they are often quite good at is creating career criminals, who often return to prison within a few years of being released. Sessions' apparent desire to include more juveniles in the prison system may be just what he needs to make his prediction of a "dangerous, permanent" increase in crime come true.