Jeff Sessions Did Not Get Jay Z’s Memo That The War On Drugs Is An Epic Fail
Last fall, Jay Z narrated a powerful animated short about the costly effect of the war on drugs, not just in terms of tax dollars, but also human lives. “The History of the War on Drugs: from Prohibition to Gold Rush” was released by the New York Times, and included troubling statistics about the racist undercurrent that informs much of America’s drug policy. “When the war on drugs started in 1971, our prison population was 200,000. Today, it is over two million,” said Jigga at the time. In January, Ambrosia for Heads reported on the threat to America’s slowly improving stance on the so-called “war on drugs” posed by a Trump administration. Of particular concern was Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Widely regarded as a hard-liner on drug policy with little concern for the negative effects unduly harsh sentences have on American families, Sessions is no longer just a nominee; he was confirmed as the 84th Attorney General of the United States on February 8.
Sessions has wasted no time undoing President Barack Obama’s progressive steps to counteract the consequential effects of America’s failed drug policies over the last few decades. Last Week, the extremely conservative AG circulated a memo through the Justice Department, instructing officials to handle even low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with the full extent of prosecutorial strength. “Prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” reads the memo, which you can see in full here. According to NPR, this is “a move that marks a significant reversal of Obama-era policies on low-level drug crimes.”
Such a policy reverses the words of previous Attorney General Holder. “Holder had asked prosecutors to avoid slapping nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carried mandatory minimum sentences,” a guideline that fell in line with Obama’s historic decision to commute the sentence of thousands unfairly criminalized inmates across the country. “Holder’s recommendation had been aimed partly at helping reduce burgeoning prison populations in the U.S.,” reports NPR. Under Sessions, prosecutors who wish to pursue lesser charges or shorter sentence for low-level offenders will “need to obtain approval for the exception from a U.S. attorney, assistant attorney general or another supervisor.”
But at a speech made by Sessions on the day following the memo’s release, the AG seemed to redirect the attention from his policy’s effect on low-level offenders to drug traffickers and dealers. “If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way. We will not be willfully blind to your misconduct,” he said. Such statements echo the “tough on-crime policy” of decades prior, notably during the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s, when the contemporary “war on drugs” was waged with exceptionally punitive disdain for Americans guilty of nothing more than possessing small, recreational amounts of drugs.
Deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance, Michael Collins, told NPR that Sessions’ Nixon and Reagan-esque approach to criminal justice ” is a disastrous move that will increase the prison population, exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and do nothing to reduce drug use or increase public safety. Sessions is taking the country back to the 1980s by escalating the failed policies of the drug war.” Even former AG Holder issued a public statement in response to Sessions’ memo, which he calls “dumb on crime” rather than “tough on crime,” adding that “[i’t 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.”
Democratic Senator Cory Booker took to Twitter to voice his concern about Sessions and his outdated, racially consequential policy on drugs.
Jeff Sessions is trying to start the War on Drugs 2.0 – and that’s unacceptable.
We must fight back. pic.twitter.com/PleIHBtmfA
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBookerOffice) May 15, 2017
“Jeff Sessions is starting the War on Drugs 2.0,” said the New Jersey politician. “We must fight back.”
In the days since releasing the troubling memo, Sessions has drawn much criticism from both sides of the political aisle. As explained in recent coverage for the New York Times, celebrated political reporter Carl Hulse explained that the Attorney General’s stance on drugs runs “so contrary to the growing bipartisan consensus coursing through Washington and many state capitals in recent years — a view that America was guilty of excessive incarceration and that large prison populations were too costly in tax dollars and the toll on families and communities.” Notably, influential Republican Senator Rand Paul criticized Sessions, saying in a statement “mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long. Attorney General Sessions’ new policy will accentuate that injustice. 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.” Republican representative from Michigan, Justin Amash, echoed the sentiment, calling Sessions’ policy “unjust, ineffective, and costly.”
As Sessions turns back the clock on prison reform, one can only wonder as to what may be motivating the shift, in light of so much political objection from both parties. Perhaps, the answer lies in Ava Duvernay’s Netflix documentary, 13th. The film systematically traces the links from slavery to sharecropping to Jim Crow and, ultimately, to prison, in using a racially-biased legal system to create cheap, if not free, work forces for private interests. As prisons have become increasingly privatized, their populations have also been used to create products for corporations at either severely discounted wages, or completely free.