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Sessions wants to return to tough crime policies

4/13/2017, 6:55 p.m.
For three decades, America got tough on crime. Police used aggressive tactics and arrest rates soared. Small-time drug cases clogged ...
Mr. Sessions

In a recent memo calling for aggressive prosecution of violent crime, Mr. Sessions told the nation’s federal prosecutors that he soon would provide more guidance on how they should prosecute all criminal cases.

Mr. Sessions’ approach is embodied in his encouraging cities to send certain gun cases to tougher federal courts, where the penalties are more severe than in state courts, and defendants are often sent out of state to serve their terms.

He credits one such program, Project Exile, with slowing murders in Richmond in the late 1990s. Its pioneer was FBI Director James Comey, who was then the lead federal prosecutor in the area.

In the community, billboards and ads warned anyone caught with an illegal gun faced harsh punishment. Homicides fell more than 30 percent in the first year in Richmond, and other cities adopted similar approaches.

But studies reached mixed conclusions about its long-term success. Defense lawyers such as Mr. Baugh said the program disproportionately hurt the African-American community by putting gun suspects in front of mostly white federal juries, as opposed to state juries drawn from predominantly African-American Richmond jury pools that might be more sympathetic to African-American defendants.

“They took a lot of young African-American men and took them off the streets and out of their communities and homes and placed them in federal prison,” said Robert Wagner, a federal public defender in Richmond.

Mr. Baugh argued the program was unconstitutional after a client was arrested for gun and marijuana possession during a traffic stop. He lost the argument, but a judge who revealed 90 percent of Project Exile defendants were African-American also shared concerns about the initiative.

Mr. Sessions has acknowledged the need to be sensitive to racial disparities, but has also said, “When you fight crime, you have to fight it where it is ... if it’s focused fairly and objectively on dangerous criminals, then you’re doing the right thing.”

During the drug war, sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine crimes were seen as unfairly punishing African-American defendants. Mr. Sessions in 2010 co-sponsored legislation that reduced that disparity. But he later opposed bipartisan criminal justice overhaul efforts, warning that eliminating mandatory minimum sentences weakens the ability of law enforcement to protect the public.

“My vision of a smart way to do this is, let’s take that arrest, let’s hammer that criminal who’s distributing drugs that have been imported in our country,” Mr. Sessions said in a recent speech to law enforcement officials.

The rhetoric sounds familiar to Mark Osler, who worked as a federal prosecutor in Detroit in the late 1990s, when possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine brought an automatic five-year prison sentence.

Mr. Osler said he came onto the job expecting to go after international drug trafficking rings, but “instead, we were locking up 18-year-old kids selling a small amount of crack, and pretending it was an international trafficker.”