This is the line that should vanquish any doubt that President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions want to escalate America’s war on drugs.
“The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed.”
The comment comes from Steven Cook, a top lieutenant in Sessions’s inner circle who often travels by the attorney general’s side as he speaks about the new administration’s goals. In a new profile for the Washington Post, Sari Horwitz details Cook’s views on the war on drugs, making it clear that one of Sessions’s closest confidants is a conservative hardliner on criminal justice issues. Cook, a former federal prosecutor and ex-president of the National Association of Assistant US Attorneys, doesn’t even appear to think the federal justice system is at all broken.
The federal criminal justice system is unique compared with the states, which make up the majority of the US prison system and lock up people mainly for violent crimes, in that it incarcerates people primarily for drug offenses. Its rising prison population over the past few decades has helped make America the world’s leader in incarceration — above even authoritarian regimes like Cuba and Russia.
This has inspired a bipartisan push, supported by groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Koch brothers, to reform the criminal justice system. Yet Cook’s comment, along with his rise in the Trump administration, make it clear: The Trump administration really is all in on the old federal war on drugs.
The Trump administration could undo the Obama administration’s work on these issues
This should really come as little surprise, given that Trump based much of his campaign on punitively cracking down on crime and drugs.
In 2015, Trump outright told MSNBC that he’s “tough on crime.” He praised Vice President Mike Pence for increasing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes as governor of Indiana. He falsely claimed that the murder rate is at a 45-year high when it’s actually near a historical low. And he said police should be more aggressive than they are today, particularly by using the controversial “stop and frisk” strategy that a court struck down in New York City because it was used to target minority Americans.
Sessions, similarly, has taken a hardline view on crime and drugs. In his last year in the Senate, he was key in killing a criminal justice reform bill that would have relaxed prison sentences for low-level drug offenders. He criticized police reforms led by the Obama administration during a November 2015 Senate hearing called “The War on Police.” And he said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” while advocating against pot legalization.
This all went against a big policy shift by President Barack Obama’s administration.
Although it was never a big part of Obama’s campaigns or speeches, his administration did take a number of steps to pull back the war on drugs. It publicly spoke of the opioid epidemic as primarily an issue of public health, not criminal justice. (Obama’s “drug czar,” Michael Botticelli, repeatedly said that “we can’t arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people.”) It shifted anti-drug spending to emphasize public health programs, like drug treatment, as much as approaches focused on criminal justice and national security.
The Obama administration also sent out memos that told prosecutors to lay off low-level drug offenses, and effectively allowed states to legalize marijuana without much federal interference.
And Obama granted clemency to more federal convicts — mainly drug offenders — than any president since Harry Truman.
Yet the Trump administration could roll back much of this. It could rescind the Obama memos — allowing prosecutors to crack down on drugs once again, including marijuana in states where it’s legal under state law. (It already sent out a memo asking prosecutors to use “every tool we have” — presumably a reference to mandatory minimums — to crack down on crime and drugs.) It could shift anti-drug spending, although it would need congressional approval for much of it, to focus more on law enforcement and interdiction than public health programs.
And the Trump administration could speak to the opioid epidemic as a criminal justice issue instead of a public health crisis, encouraging policymakers to reemphasize “tough on crime” tactics for drugs. In fact, Sessions has already begun doing that: “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” he told law enforcement in a speech last month. “It will destroy your life.”
Cook’s appointment signals that this is exactly where the Trump administration is heading.
As Kevin Ring, president of the reform-focused Families Against Mandatory Minimums, put it to the Washington Post, “If there was a flickering candle of hope that remained for sentencing reform, Cook’s appointment was a fire hose. … There simply aren’t enough backhoes to build all the prisons it would take to realize Steve Cook’s vision for America.”