Via Glenn E. Martin for The Hill
Attorney General Jeff Sessions should go to jail.
Not because of the Russia scandal engulfing the Trump administration — I’ll leave that up to special counsel Robert Mueller — but because of his recent directives ordering federal prosecutors to bring back mandatory minimum sentencing.
How else will he see the damage these kind of policies — which force prosecutors into pursuing the harshest possible punishment for defendants no matter what the circumstances are — have on communities and our criminal justice system?
I’d suggest he go to Rikers Island, the infamous New York City jail that is so violent it’s been under federal monitoring for years. It’s a house of horrors that I know intimately, having served time there for both shoplifting and robbery in the 1990s.
At that time, New York’s jail population was swelling to historic proportions, fueled by New York’s mandatory minimum Rockefeller Drug laws and policies that aggressively prosecuted mostly low-income, black and brown New Yorkers for minor crimes — basically a local version of what Sessions is calling for on a national scale.
Unfortunately, the legacy of those policies continues today, which Sessions would see if he visited Rikers. It’s a system straining to support the number of people housed there, despite the fact that new policy changes designed to keep low-level defendants out of jail have lowered the city’s jail population to its lowest rate in decades.
Let that sink in.
In ultra-liberal New York City, we’re trying to keep people out of jail, and we still don’t have room for all the people we’ve locked up or the capacity to keep them safe and exposed to rehabilitative programming.
New York is not alone.
Crime has fallen dramatically nationwide, but the United States still has the highest incarceration rate on the planet, and spends an estimated $80 billion a year on jailing. That’s money that could go to education, work training, mental health and drug abuse programs — the type of solutions that study after study shows keeps people from going to jail in the first place.
Over the past several years, criminal justice reform efforts to reduce this country’s tragically high incarceration rate have enjoyed wide bipartisan support, a rarity in this country today. Republicans, like senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), along with the deep-pocketed Koch brothers, who are among the biggest GOP donors, are joining Democrats and state and local prosecutors to push for reforms.
Foremost among those changes is ending our knee jerk response to locking away troubled people, many of whom are best served with community-based supports.
Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would work to close Rikers Island in ten years, a huge victory for the grassroots #CLOSErikers campaign that I led.
But there was a catch.
The city’s jail population had to be further reduced to pave the way for closure. We are on our way, but Sessions’ tough on crime, short on common sense approach threatens those plans.
Here in New York and all over the country, we must not allow Sessions to roll back important reforms to our criminal justice system.
Quite frankly, it’d be a crime.