When Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe on March 16, it drew rare praise from President Donald J. Trump. Trump has previously insulted Sessions on multiple occasions on Twitter for recusing himself from the FBI’s Russian probe.
Sessions has faced an unusual amount of controversy in his short tenure in the Justice Department. He currently finds himself tied to the Russian probe despite efforts to keep his distance, while struggling to maintain a working relationship with the White House (The Hill).
Yet Sessions remains Attorney General despite internal tensions in the administration. WikiTribune will be compiling a list of reforms that he’s made, or plans to accomplish while leading the Justice Department.
- Bringing back “private prisons”
Reform: Reversed the Obama-era policy that banned privately-run correctional facilities for inmates who committed federal crimes.
Why it matters: Sessions said that private prisons are needed to meet the growing number of prisoners. While the federal prison population is declining, according to U.S. Courts, his comments may reflect plans to implement policy that could result in a higher incarceration rate. In May 2017, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe charges where possible, reversing an Obama directive to treat non-violent drug offenses with a lighter prosecutorial hand (Guardian).
Private prisons tend to invest less in prison staff and lack rehabilitative services, according to a 2016 study from Brookings, a liberal-leaning think tank.
- Ending “administrative closures”
Reform: Ended the ability of immigration judges to allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country when there was no formal decision on their legal case.
Why it matters: Could make an additional 350,000 undocumented immigrants on administrative closures vulnerable to deportation (Fox News). Immigration hardliners see administrative closures as de facto amnesty, by allowing undocumented immigrants to stay while their case is being decided. In one case, Sessions personally tried an administrative closure case.
- Crackdown on cannabis
Reform: Reversed the Obama administration’s policy that permitted states to experiment with cannabis laws. Federal authorities are now able to arrest and charge distributors of cannabis even where the practice is legal by state law.
Why it matters: Cannabis is classified as a Schedule I narcotic by the U.S. Justice Department, the category of the most illegal substances. Yet recreational use of cannabis has been legalized in nine states, and Washington D.C. Several other states allow growing cannabis for personal use, others have regulated medical sale (Vox). Under Obama, these states were assured that the federal authorities would not pursue them. Sessions has rescinded this policy, making newly established marijuana dispensaries vulnerable to prosecution. Sessions has said that marijuana is “only slightly less awful” than heroin and considers the plant root of many of society’s ills (New York Times). However, he faces opposition from the general public as well as other Republicans such as Republican Cory Gardner of Colorado, one of the states where cannabis has been legalized. Not only does selling marijuana violate federal law; handling the proceeds of any marijuana transaction is considered to be money laundering. Very few banks are willing to bear that risk causing businesses difficulty in operating (New York Times).
- Reviewing “consent decrees”
Reform: The DOJ reviewing all “consent decrees,” deals where the federal government evaluates in local police departments (CNN).
Why it matters: After accusations of police brutality — particularly towards African-Americans — consent decrees were seen as a tool to retrain local law enforcement. Sessions said that they reduce police morale and hinder “broken windows” policing, the practice of cracking down on vandalism and other minor offenses under the belief that these non-violent crimes lead to more serious offenses (CNN).
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