In Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ world, an explosion of violent crime is persistently bubbling just beneath the surface of American society, ready to spill forth onto the streets. Speaking to the National Association of Attorneys General in February, Sessions noted recent jumps in U.S. crime rates and warned they represent “a dangerous new trend” that he believes is “not necessarily an aberration.”
His perception of a looming crime outbreak can be traced to his unwavering belief that drugs inherently induce crime. Sessions authored a foreboding piece for The Washington Post in which he claims “the federal government softened its approach to drug enforcement” during the Obama years and as a result, “drug abuse and violent crime surged.”
Downplaying the mass of low-level drug offenders (roughly half of the federal prison population), he insists any nominally “nonviolent” offenders in prison are there solely because they were violent offenders who accepted plea bargains of drug charges.
Numerous studies suggest Sessions is wrong on all of these points. He may believe that all drug offenders are incorrigibly dangerous, but a 2015 study that examined the federal inmate population determined “over three-quarters of all individuals in federal prison for drug offenses have no serious history of violence before the current offense.” Another report found that 39 percent of state and federal prisoners are incarcerated without a public safety justification.
His claim that a “softened approach” to drug enforcement caused a violent crime surge under President Obama is also flatly untrue. From 2009 to 2014, overall crime fell to its lowest level since 1970, even while prosecutors scaled back use of strict federal penalties.
Finally, a new study from the Vera Institute, one of the foremost research organizations focusing on criminal justice policy, undermines his argument that recent increases in crime signal a dangerous trend. The study analyzed crimes rates for four different groups: those with low, low-medium, medium-high, and high crime rates. It found that “average rates of robbery, aggravated assault, and overall violent crime declined between 2014-2016 for all four groups,” and that “the only notable increase in the group-average rates …was for homicides that occurred in the group of jurisdictions that already had the highest pre-existing violent crime rates.”
The report states that “given the sudden uptick in homicides and other violent crimes in spring and summer of 2015, the default assumption became a new trend towards violent crime.” However, the researcher notes those assumptions were premature, as year-to-year crime fluctuations are normal and that changes similar to those seen from 2014 to 2016 have occurred before.
The study reiterates that overall crime rates remain at historic lows, and that “the recent spike in violent crime was centered in major cities where the violent crime rate was already high.” In fact, just three cities—Baltimore, Chicago and Washington—accounted for half the aggregate homicide increase from 2014-2015. In the following year, Chicago alone accounted for more than 40 percent of the increase. Even within these cities, the majority of crimes occurred in just a few specific neighborhoods.
Jeff Session’s Distorted Perspective Will Be Ineffective
In his Washington Post article, Sessions warns that a recent homicide uptick of 11 percent is the highest percentage increase in decades. But the Vera analysis explains that percentage changes in homicide can be especially volatile, given their very low baselines and sample sizes. Ultimately, the analysis concludes that the recent rise in homicides in a few cities is troubling and requires localized interventions, but that it would be irresponsible to paint the situation as an imminent, national crime wave.
The problem is that Sessions’ misguided beliefs about the nature and pervasiveness of crime informs his policy choices. Soon after his swearing in, the attorney general rescinded a directive from former Attorney General Eric Holder that guided federal prosecutors to avoid pursuing charges that would trigger mandatory minimums for low-level offenders. Holder’s memo was intended to minimize prosecutions of drug offenders without extensive criminal histories in favor of pursuing criminals higher up in the food chain.
The strategy was working. The percentage of defendants who faced a mandatory minimum plummeted, while prosecutions of more serious crimes increased. For the first time in decades, prison populations fell in tandem with crime rates. Now many non-violent, first-time offenders face the possibility of being stuck with a ten-year mandatory minimum charge, when they otherwise would have gotten a slap on the wrist or been placed in a rehabilitation program. Prosecutors, on the other hand, will be splitting their resources between “small fry” offenders and the truly dangerous.
Contrary to the attorney general’s imagination, hordes of bloodthirsty gang members are not suddenly plaguing American neighborhoods. Crime is still at its lowest level in decades. The role of the highest-ranking prosecutor is to present the facts, not to further an alarmist agenda.
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