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Sally Yates on Making America scared again

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 24, 2017 3:20 pm    Post subject: Sally Yates on Making America scared again Reply with quote


The Washington Post
Making America scared again won’t make us safer
By Sally Q. Yates
June 23 at 8:11 PM

[Sally Q. Yates served in the Justice Department from 1989 to 2017 as an
assistant U.S. attorney, U.S. attorney, deputy attorney general and,
briefly this year, as acting attorney general.]

In today’s polarized world, there aren’t many issues on which
Democrats and Republicans agree. So when they do, we should seize the rare
opportunity to move our country forward. One such issue is
criminal-justice reform, and specifically the need for sentencing reform
for drug offenses.

Play Video 1:37
Sessions thinks violent crime is on the rise across America. He's wrong.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said over and over again that he sees
the uptick in violent crime in a few major cities in the US as the start
of a “dangerous trend.” Let's take a look at the numbers. (Daron
Taylor/The Washington Post)

All across the political spectrum, in red states and blue states, from
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and the Koch brothers to Sen. Patrick Leahy
(D-Vt.) and the American Civil Liberties Union, there is broad consensus
that the “lock them all up and throw away the key” approach embodied
in mandatory minimum drug sentences is counterproductive, negatively
affecting our ability to assure the safety of our communities.

But last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled back the clock to
the 1980s, reinstating the harsh, indiscriminate use of mandatory minimum
drug sentences imposed at the height of the crack epidemic. Sessions
attempted to justify his directive in a Post op-ed last weekend, stoking
fear by claiming that as a result of then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder
Jr.’s Smart on Crime policy, the United States is gripped by a rising
epidemic of violent crime that can only be cured by putting more drug
offenders in jail for more time.

That argument just isn’t supported by the facts. Not only are violent
crime rates still at historic lows — nearly half of what they were when
I became a federal prosecutor in 1989 — but there is also no evidence
that the increase in violent crime some cities have experienced is the
result of drug offenders not serving enough time in prison. In fact, a
recent study by the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission found that drug
defendants with shorter sentences were actually slightly less likely to
commit crimes when released than those sentenced under older, more severe

Contrary to Sessions’s assertions, Smart on Crime focused our limited
federal resources on cases that had the greatest impact on our communities
— the most dangerous defendants and most complex cases. As a result,
prosecutors charged more defendants with murder, assault, gun crimes and
robbery than ever before. And a greater percentage of drug prosecutions
targeted kingpins and drug dealers with guns.

During my 27 years at the Justice Department, I prosecuted criminals at
the heart of the international drug trade, from high-level narcotics
traffickers to violent gang leaders. And I had no hesitation about asking
a judge to impose long prison terms in those cases.

But there’s a big difference between a cartel boss and a low-level
courier. As the Sentencing Commission found, part of the problem with
harsh mandatory-minimum laws passed a generation ago is that they use the
weight of the drugs involved in the offense as a proxy for seriousness of
the crime — to the exclusion of virtually all other considerations,
including the dangerousness of the offender. Looking back, it’s clear
that the mandatory-minimum laws cast too broad a net and, as a result,
some low-level defendants are serving far longer sentences than are
necessary — 20 years, 30 years, even mandatory life sentences, for
nonviolent drug offenses.

Under Smart on Crime, the Justice Department took a more targeted
approach, reserving the harshest of those penalties for the most violent
and significant drug traffickers and encouraging prosecutors to use their
discretion not to seek mandatory minimum sentences for lower-level,
nonviolent offenders. Sessions’s new directive essentially reverses that
progress, limiting prosecutors’ ability to use their judgment to ensure
the punishment fits the crime.

That’s a problem for several reasons. First, it’s fiscally
irresponsible and undermines public safety. Since 1980, the U.S. prison
populationhas exploded from 500,000 to more than 2.2 million, resulting in
the highest incarceration rate in the world and costing more than $80
billion a year. The federal prison population has grown 700 percent, with
the Federal Bureau of Prisons budget now accounting for more than 25
percent of the entire Justice Department budget. That has serious public
safety consequences: Every dollar spent imprisoning a low-level nonviolent
drug offender for longer than necessary is a dollar we don’t have to
investigate and prosecute serious threats, from child predators to
terrorists. It’s a dollar we don’t have to support state and local law
enforcement for cops on the street, who are the first lines of defense
against violent crime. And it’s a dollar we don’t have for crime
prevention or recidivism reduction within our prison system, essential
components of building safe communities.

But just as significant are the human costs. More than 2 million children
are growing up with a parent behind bars, including 1 in 9African American
children. Huge numbers of Americans are being housed in prisons far from
their home communities, creating precisely the sort of community
instability where violent crime takes root. Indiscriminate use of
mandatory minimum sentencing has caused many Americans to lose faith in
the criminal-justice system, undermining the type of police-community
relationships that are so crucial to making our streets safer.

While there is always room to debate the most effective approach to
criminal justice, that debate should be based on facts, not fear. It’s
time to move past the campaign-style rhetoric of being “tough” or
“soft” on crime. Justice and the safety of our communities depend on
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