25 Ways Sessions and His Justice Department Criminalized and Terrorized Communities of Color
As the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, the attorney general is responsible for ensuring equal justice under the law for all Americans. But Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the recently forced out U.S. attorney general, used his office and position to undermine the rights and freedoms of people of color. From civil rights and criminal justice, to immigration policy, Sessions, also a former Republican U.S. senator from Alabama, did not miss an opportunity to criminalize and terrorize people of color.
The American public was long aware of Sessions’ dangerous record and potential to inflict harm on communities of color. In 1986, Sessions was denied a federal judgeship due to alarming laudatory statements he made about the Ku Klux Klan and racist remarks aimed at his black colleagues. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., even submitted a letter warning the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee of Sessions’ record of using his power as a former U.S. attorney to “intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot.”
As a U.S. senator, Sessions routinely fought against protections for historically marginalized communities. He vehemently opposed efforts to strengthen federal hate crimes statutes, failed to protect against gender discrimination, and blocked actions to enact comprehensive bi-partisan immigration reform. These and other actions led civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus; Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA); and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), one of just three sitting African American senators, to break with tradition and testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to his appointment.
An individual’s past and present actions are a testament to how they will execute the duties of their office. Grave concerns about Sessions’ record, noted during his confirmation, unsurprisingly became reality. After taking control of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), he pursued an aggressive and virulent policy agenda that sought to strip away every protection for people of color and other marginalized communities within the agency’s purview.
President Donald Trump’s next attorney general cannot be allowed to continue Sessions’ ruthless campaign against communities of color. It is past time for Congress to hold the U.S. attorney general and the DOJ accountable. As the nation looks toward the 116th Congress, here are 25 issues congressional members should examine as part of their oversight and “advice and consent” duties.
- A fair and accurate U.S. census is essential for the equitable distribution of federal resources and full political representation. But as attorney general, Sessions sabotaged the 2020 census by helping Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross add a new question about immigration status. The Sessions DOJ attempted to justify this blatant effort to suppress census participation by citing its responsibility to protect against voter suppression in communities of color.
- Hate crimes and white nationalist extremism are a resurgent threat to communities of color. But instead of expanding resources to combat hate, Sessions asked Congress to eliminate the DOJ’s Community Relations Service, which is dedicated to addressing racial tensions and preventing hate crimes.
- Voter purges are a devious suppression tactic designed to keep people of color by the thousands from voting by targeting them for removal from lists of registered voters. Instead of defending American citizens’ fundamental right to vote, the Sessions DOJ urged the Supreme Court to greenlight harmful purges nationwide.
- Black transgender individuals face heightened levels of discrimination and a devastating 20 percent unemployment rate. But as attorney general, Sessions threatened to make matters worse by reversing Obama-era policies that sought to protect transgender workers from employment discrimination.
- While the national unemployment rate was less than 5 percent in 2017, it was more than 10 percent among Hispanics with disabilities and almost 14 percent among blacks with disabilities. Yet, in 2018, Sessions revoked critical employment protections for people with disabilities, finding that they were “unnecessary, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper.”
- Hate speech is a pervasive problem on college campuses, one that undermines access to higher education for students of color. But Sessions exploited his position as attorney general to criticize and make light of universities that seek to create inclusive, hate-free learning environments.
- Transgender students of color face tremendous barriers to education. But under then-Attorney General Sessions, the DOJ rescinded federal protections for transgender students in K-12 schools, denying them the ability to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.
- Affirmative action plays a critical role in expanding access to higher education for students of color and in closing stark racial disparities in degree attainment. But under Sessions’ leadership, the DOJ consistently sought to undermine race-conscious admissions policies.
- African Americans or black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to be arrested for drug possession, despite using and dealing drugs at comparable rates. As attorney general, Sessions rejected the data and ordered prosecutors to pursue the harshest drug sentences possible—without regard to an individual’s role in a drug conspiracy. Sessions also ordered prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in certain nonviolent drug trafficking cases. Black Americans already face 19 percent longer sentences for the same crimes as whites and are far more likely to receive the death penalty. This DOJ policy will only exacerbate racial disparities.
- In his role as attorney general, Sessions pushed prosecutors to crack down on marijuana possession in states where it is legal and lobbied legislators to reverse federal protections for medical marijuana. According to a recent CAP/GBA Strategies survey, more than two-thirds—68 percent—of voters support marijuana legalization, including a majority of Democrats, independents, Republicans, and the three largest racial and ethnic groups.
- Police are almost four times more likely to use force against black people than against white people. Again rejecting the data, then-Attorney General Sessions eliminated training and supervision requirements for law enforcement seeking to obtain surplus weapons and equipment from federal agencies.
- Private prisons profit from the incarceration of human beings and house a greater share of immigrants and people of color than public prisons. In partnership with the Trump White House and in his capacity as attorney general, Sessions supported expanding the use of private prisons as part of the DOJ’s immigration crackdown and renewed war on drugs campaign.
- Violent crime has declined significantly in recent decades. Yet, then-Attorney General Sessions ignored the data and instead peddled false narratives about crime to justify police crackdowns in communities of color.
- Data reveal that innocent African Americans or black Americans are seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than their white counterparts, partly due to insufficient and inaccurate forensic evidence. Forensic science is critical in closing racial disparities and ensuring justice is served. Despite its necessity, as attorney general, Sessions undermined efforts to improve the reliability of forensics by eliminating the National Commission on Forensic Science.
- Returning citizens, especially people of color, face systemic barriers to re-entry following incarceration. One of the key barriers to successful re-entry is housing. In his role as attorney general, Sessions threatened to shut down halfway houses and limit access to transitional services.
- While far too many police officers make the ultimate sacrifice, officer deaths in 2017 were the second-lowest in more than 50 years. Despite this, then-Attorney General Sessions misrepresented data about the rate of violence experienced by law enforcement to justify the overpolicing in communities of color.
- When low-income people, especially people of color, interact with the criminal justice system, they frequently face steep fines and fees and inordinate cash bail requirements that force them to remain in jail or enter into costly contracts with bond companies. Despite these problems, Sessions asked courts to disregard an Obama-era letter requesting them to be lenient and cautious of overcharging low-income defendants of color.
- Police reform agreements play a critical role in improving public safety and rebuilding trust between law enforcement and communities of color. Despite success under these agreements, then-Attorney General Sessions effectively barred the DOJ from investigating and addressing systemic law enforcement misconduct at the local level.
- The chief law enforcement officer of the United States should be fair, impartial, and devoted equal justice under law. As attorney general, though, Sessions exposed his backward views in racially charged statements about the importance of the “Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.”
- In April 2018, then-Attorney General Sessions announced a draconian zero-tolerance immigration policy of prosecuting anyone who arrives in the United States without documentation—even families seeking asylum. This policy resulted in the separation of more than 2,600 children from their parents. Despite public outcry, a federal court order, and evidence that deterrence doesn’t work, the administration has failed to reunite all of the separated families months after the reunification deadline. The zero-tolerance policy remains on the books today.
- Entangling local law enforcement with immigration enforcement diminishes public trust and public safety and places a significant financial burden on taxpayers. Despite such concerns, the Sessions DOJ sued California for refusing to help round up immigrants across the state. Furthermore, the department has attempted to strip funding from places that have adopted commonsense policies to prevent entanglement between local authorities and federal immigration enforcement.
- In 2017, then-Attorney General Sessions announced that the administration would eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He also repeatedly refused to defend DACA in federal court. These actions have disrupted the lives of 800,000 DACA recipients, most of whom are people of color, and some of whom now face detention or deportation.
- The decision to deport an individual to a country where she or he could experience abuse, neglect, or even death requires significant and thoughtful consideration. As attorney general, Sessions forced judges to rush deportation cases by revoking policies that allow additional time for deliberation. Moreover, he implemented quotas in order to expedite the rate of deportations.
- Thousands of people of color facing gender-based violence and or gang violence in their countries of origin have fled to the United States seeking safety. Rather than embracing these survivors and expanding access to victims’ services, Sessions declared that they will likely no longer qualify for asylum.
- Over the past two years, the Trump administration has advanced three versions of its xenophobic Muslim ban. This policy puts thousands of refugees’ lives at risk and undermines the national security of the United States. Yet, the DOJ under Sessions repeatedly defended these efforts and successfully secured support from conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court to let the travel ban take effect.
Connor Maxwell is the research associate for Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center for American Progress. Danyelle Solomon is the senior director of Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center.
Authors’ note: While “African American” and “black” are frequently used interchangeably, this column uses “African American” wherever possible to refer to the population of interest. However, the authors use terminology that is consistent the underlying data source. For this reason, this uses both “African American” “black,” depending on the source.
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