Saturday, May 27, 2017

GateHouse Media: Ratcheting up the ‘war on drugs’

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
May 26, 2017
The Trump administration’s first budget is big on public safety. The budget includes $27.7 billion for the Justice Department, including what the White House calls “critical law enforcement, public safety and immigration enforcement programs and activities.”
President Trump is asking Congress for an increase of $175 million for the Justice Department “to target the worst of the worst criminal organizations and drug traffickers in order to address violent crime, gun-related deaths, and the opioid epidemic.”
Trump’s “tough on crime” rhetoric has resulted in a budget proposal that leaves most criminal justice agencies and programs intact -- the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are stable or rising -- while spending reductions are proposed for a number of other federal agencies.
These increases come as both the FBI and Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) show a substantial decline in the violent crime rate since its peak in the early 1990s. Using the FBI numbers, according to Salon, the rate fell 50 percent between 1993 and 2015, the most recent full year available. Using the BJS data, the rate fell by 77 percent during that span.
In addition, the administration says it will save nearly $1 billion in federal prison construction because of a 14 percent decrease in the prison population since 2013, wrote Ted Gest at the The Crime Report.
Wait ... the proposed budget provides more resources for crime fighting and the attorney general pledges to lock-up more drug offenders for longer periods of time and the administration is counting on savings from prisoner reductions?
Counting on continued savings in federal prison spending due to declining inmate population seems a bit disingenuous. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced that he wants federal prosecutors to take a tougher stance on drug cases, a move that will inevitably increase the number of federal prisoners.
Sessions wants federal prosecutors to reinitiate the “war on drugs” by charging suspects with the most serious offense that can be proved and imposing more mandatory minimum sentences.
“We know that drugs and crime go hand-in-hand,” Sessions said in a speech on May 12. “Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.”
Sessions’ edict reverses a policy implemented by former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. in August 2013, one that ordered prosecutors to refrain from pursuing drug charges if doing so would trigger lengthy mandatory minimum sentences -- and the defendant was not part of a gang, cartel, or other large-scale drug trafficking organization.
Sessions has always been on the draconian end of illegal drug policy. When he was Alabama’s attorney general, he pushed for a bill that would have provided for the death penalty for individuals convicted of a second drug trafficking offense.
Being tough on crime means filling prisons. According to the Washington Post, in the 1980s, the U.S. began incarcerating people at a higher rate than any other country -- jailing 25 percent of the world’s prisoners at a cost of $80 billion a year. The nation’s prison and jail population more than quadrupled from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2015.
Former President Barack Obama began a clemency initiative late in his second term. He focused on the release of certain drug offenders from prison. He worked to address some obvious racial disparities in sentencing with progressive forward thinking initiatives. Obama and his attorney general were looking to the future.
Compare that with a recent speech by Sessions where he suggested, “Psychologically, politically, morally, we need to say -- as Nancy Reagan said -- ‘Just say no.’”
That’s a general fighting the last war.

-- Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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