Attorney General Jeff Sessions has maintained his tough-on-crime posturing and disdain for liberal criminal justice policies since his early days as a US Attorney under the Reagan administration, a decades-old letter unearthed by The New Republic shows.
Although Sessions was then just a federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Alabama, he wrote his boss, then-Attorney General William French Smith, in September of 1982 to urge a radical approach to cracking down on crime.
Sessions’ memo to Smith, which David Dagan, a criminal justice researcher and a national fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, said he discovered in the National Archives, begins with an acknowledgment of the “presumptuous” nature of his letter, diminutively referring to himself as “a resident of the distant boondocks” as he predicts that a pending package of crime legislation will fail in Congress.
In place of the doomed legislation, Sessions suggests, the Reagan administration should take up a more ambitious strategy: Republicans should curry support for conservative crime policies, and portray liberal critics as hand-wringing crime-apologists.
“Once it is introduced, of course, the liberals will buzz about with agonizing whines,” Sessions writes.
“After they have come forth and identified themselves as sympathizers for drug smugglers and other assorted criminals, congregating about the bait, they should then be flattened by the President in a full-scale campaign on behalf of the legislation.”
Sessions calls on Smith to take a provocative approach and include in the new legislation “every” legitimate crime-related Republican demand, even those involving “controversial” issues such as the death penalty.
He also reveals his contempt for the mentality behind criminal justice reforms, presuming that liberals are more concerned with protecting the rights of criminals than fighting crime.
“All this will fit within what I believe is a White House strategy of defining who we are and who they are,” Sessions continues. “We support efforts to fight crime; they constantly attempt to obstruct needed reforms to protect the innocent from violent criminals. We support stability and order; they wander about wringing their hands crying for the criminals while violence every where escalates.”
Advocates of criminal justice reform frequently argue that traditional tough-on-crime tactics such as aggressive policing, zealous prosecution, and mass incarceration have not only failed to protect victims and rehabilitate criminals, they have also proven ineffective in reducing crime.
Smith’s response to Sessions’ letter, which was also published by The New Republic, acknowledges the difficulty in passing crime legislation through Congress, and thanks Sessions for sharing his views on “the imbalance that has arisen between the forces of law and the forces of lawlessness.”
Although it’s unclear whether Sessions’ arguments had any influence on Smith or the Reagan administration, similar tough-on-crime mindsets pervaded through the US criminal justice system throughout the 1980s and 1990s, leading to a growing incarcerated population that has only in recent years begun to shrink at the federal level.
The 1982 letter appears especially prescient in light of Sessions’ recent announcement to rescind an Obama-era sentencing policy and order for federal prosecutors to begin charging suspects with the “most serious, readily provable” offenses that carry the harshest penalties.
Although the move was expected, it nevertheless triggered a wave of bipartisan skepticism. Broadening consensus has emerged in recent years on the value of criminal justice reform, and both Republicans and Democrats have sought to lighten sentences for drug offenders and ease prisoners’ re-entry into society.
“Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long,” Republican Senator Rand Paul said in response to Sessions’ new sentencing policy. “Instead, we should treat our nation’s drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ problem.”
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who served as attorney general in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2015, was more blunt:
“It is dumb on crime,” Holder said in a statement. “It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”