In recent years many people across the political spectrum have come to realize that the so-called "war on drugs" has been a completely futile effort that has destroyed lives, broken apart families, and accomplished nothing other than filling prisons with many Americans who should not be there. But don't tell that to Trump's Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.
Sessions has been a longtime advocate for harsh punishment for drug crimes, not just for drug traffickers, but for casual drug users as well. And on Friday he took a major step in bringing back the drug war after years of sanity on the subject during the Obama administration.
Sessions threw out the more lenient Obama-era policy designed to get and keep non-violent, low-level offenders out of prisons. That policy, issued by former Attorney General Eric Holder, instructed prosecutors to be judicious in bringing charges that would produce longer jail terms. Instead, he issued a memo instructing the Justice Department to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense" in drug cases. And in case department lawyers aren't clear on what that means, Sessions clarified that the most serious offenses "carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences." In other words, "lock 'em up and throw away the key."
The Obama policies had led to a sharp decline in the number of those charged with drug crimes who were given mandatory minimum sentences, from 62 percent in 2013 to 44 percent in 2016, according to the Los Angeles Times. But that is about to change. Molly Gill, director of legislative affairs for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), told the LA Times,
"Those numbers will go up when you are telling prosecutors to charge the harshest crimes they can get. It’s really ironic. Jeff Sessions touts himself as a champion of public safety, and they want to waste taxpayers’ money on people who aren’t that much of a threat."
The new drug war that is slowly gathering steam under Sessions' leadership is directly connected with the Trump administration's rejection of another Obama order that limited federal use of for-profit prisons. The companies that run those facilities have built a sizable lobbying effort in Washington that is designed in part to keep harsh sentences for drug use and possession on the books. Corrections Corporation of America, one of the largest for-profit prison companies, had this to say to their stockholders in their 2014 annual report:
The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
And you can bet that those prisons will soon be stocked with large numbers of black and Hispanic inmates charged, convicted, and sentenced for drug crimes. An October 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that as of 2012, 76 percent of federal prisoners serving sentences involving drugs were black or Latino. And that certainly isn't going to change. Sessions' order is an open invitation for federal law enforcement to go into minority communities and start rounding up people for the most minor drug offenses.
It will be interesting to watch this unfold. The country is in the middle of an opioid epidemic. But that epidemic is largely taking its toll on white people. And some of the states hardest impacted by it are ones that Republicans need to help them hold onto power, like West Virginia. Sending in DEA agents to break down the doors of white citizens probably wouldn't sit to well in areas where people who have bought the Trump/Sessions line on crime will want to know why the feds aren't in those "ghettos" arresting more "n*****s." So expect to see plenty of raids in places like Baltimore and East L.A., but not so much in the opioid hotbeds of rural and suburban America.
During the Obama years the country had finally started to come to its senses on drugs. And now, in the name of "law and order," Sessions is about to demonstrate the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting different results. All in order to fill federal prisons, especially those run for profit, with people of color who in many cases need medical help, not a prison sentence.