Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the FBI Building, Sept. 28, 2017, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik. Associated Press)

In spite of Jeff Sessions, criminal justice reform still moving forward

The following editorial appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune on Friday, Oct. 6:

When it comes to criminal justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is an unreconstructed throwback to the tough-on-crime days of American politics in the 1980s and 1990s. He has ordered Justice Department prosecutors to seek the toughest possible penalties against criminal defendants; he has called federal consent decrees that seek to stop systemic police mistreatment of minorities a “dangerous” overreach; and he has contemplated a crackdown on states that legalize marijuana use.

Thursday, he revived a program to file federal charges against suspects in street-level gun and gang crimes _ a practice that’s been criticized for deputizing federal agents to be “super-local police.”

Whatever drives Sessions’ zeal for an extremely punitive criminal-justice system, it’s not evidence that it works or is cost-effective. No other industrial democracy has sentencing practices as harsh as America’s. Yet according to the Numbeo database of global crime statistics, as of mid-2017, virtually every other industrial democracy has crime rates that are somewhat lower (France, Australia, Great Britain) to much lower (Canada, Germany, Spain) — and all spend much less per capita on prisons.

The encouraging news for Americans who want rational crime policies that don’t waste money or discard redeemable lives is that bipartisan groups of lawmakers at the federal and state level agree.

In Congress, major criminal justice reforms were introduced this week that have strong support from key interest groups. On Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced a bill that would change federal sentencing laws to give “nonviolent offenders with minimal criminal histories a better chance to become productive members of society.” Eleven senators — including Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee — support the bill.

On Monday, five GOP senators — Ted Cruz of Texas, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and David Perdue of Georgia — introduced a bill meant to end the imprisonment of individuals accused of federal crimes without evidence of either knowledge or intent to break the law. Guilt could be found only if the accused “knowingly and willfully” committed a crime.

If Sessions has President Donald Trump’s ear, these bills may be vetoed. But Congress’ renewed interest in criminal justice reform is a good sign.

At the state level, the news is more promising. Per the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 30 states have adopted reforms meant to reduce prison time of relatively minor criminals and to improve the chances they’re productive people when released. Since Texas became a pioneer in state-level reforms in 2007, it’s been able to close four prisons, with the closure of four more pending — achieved at the same time the crime rate was falling to 50-year lows.

California has been part of this reform wave, passing Proposition 47 in 2014 and Proposition 57 in 2016, both meant to end the warehousing of nonviolent offenders. Now momentum is building for revising bail policies that can ruin the lives of poor people by forcing them to spend months in jail before trial.

At least outside of Justice Department headquarters in Washington, the costly, counterproductive tough-on-crime mania of the late 20th century is receding. This amounts to a welcome — if long overdue — move toward being smart on crime instead.

Information from The San Diego Union-Tribune