Beyond ‘Law and Order’

With Jeff Sessions as attorney general, dangerous and outdated “law and order” policies would stymie criminal justice reform.

Attorney General-designate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) takes his seat at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 10, 2017. (AP/Alex Brandon)
Attorney General-designate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) takes his seat at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 10, 2017. (AP/Alex Brandon)

The Senate will soon vote on the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to be the 84th attorney general of the United States. If confirmed, Sessions would be America’s chief law enforcement officer and the primary implementer of President Donald Trump’s “law and order” regime to address the so-called “American carnage.” But at a time when crime rates in America remain near historic lows and policymakers look to thoughtfully redesign and limit the breadth of justice systems, the new administration is set to reinstitute a philosophy that will precariously and unnecessarily enlarge the entire enterprise.

Sessions would return the nation to failed “law and order” policies

These days, a “law and order” platform is synonymous with a tough-on-crime approach that favors more policing and leads to more arrests and convictions and longer jail sentences. It diminishes strategies such as prevention, treatment, and longer-term remedies like creating educational and employment opportunities to reduce crime. The ultimate effect doesn’t yield safer communities, but instead increases contacts to an already overburdened criminal justice system and exacerbates tensions between law enforcement and communities of color.

To support their approach, the Trump administration describes the country in cataclysmic and outdated terms that harken back to the 1980s and 1990s when “law and order” policies were popular. Indeed, the president’s speeches consistently point to the specter of the rioter and the looter, and stereotype the “inner cities.” But this dystopian vision of America is not in line with actual facts. The White House warns of dangers across the country by misleadingly focusing only on the change in violent crime rates from 2014 to 2015—without mentioning that 2015 remained the third-lowest year for violent crime rates in the past 20 years. Even when taking into account increases in certain cities, crime rates today are nearly half of what they were at their peak in 1991.

Even if crime rates were higher, the efficacy of outdated “law and order” policies on reducing crime is questionable at best. Several recent examinations concluded that mass incarceration sentencing policies and policing practices such as stop and frisk had an insignificant and/or overstated effect on reducing crime. Instead, crime declines are attributed more to factors such as smarter policing, aging populations, decreased alcohol consumption, and focusing on smaller numbers of high-risk offenders instead of broad swaths of the community. Yet, the toll on people affected by “law and order” policies has been devastating. Communities of color have especially been affected. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet comprise 40 percent of those incarcerated. For Latino males, one in six born in 2001 will go to prison at some point during their lifetime.

Recent efforts at criminal justice reform would be undermined

Policymakers at all levels of government, including law enforcement leaders, have come to understand that the criminal justice system is not necessarily the right answer, and should not be the default response, to every conflict or potentially harmful behavior in our communities. They have embraced the exact opposite of the traditional “law and order” strategies by examining multifaceted approaches to limit the justice system’s footprint while keeping the public safe.

Take, for instance, efforts to reduce the burden on law enforcement and expand the cadre of professionals who respond to tense situations in the community. Last year, Denver initiated a co-responder program that embeds licensed, trained mental health clinicians in the police department who jointly respond with a police officer to calls for service. The first six months of the program showed dramatic results: 840 out of 863 calls for service resulted in treatment or social services instead of jail.

Congress has also embraced a holistic, multipronged approach to criminal justice and public safety policy. When confronted with the surging use of addiction to opioids in America, Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA. CARA is the antithesis of a “law and order” approach because it places emphasis on prevention, treatment, and recovery strategies in addition to law enforcement action. The bill had the overwhelming support of both parties and both houses of Congress, and Sessions ultimately voted for the bill.

Yet, Sessions’ accompanying statement essentially minimized the bill’s value and made clear that, in his view, the real solutions were more arrests, more prosecutions, and other similar tough-on-crime policies. Sessions took a similar tone when leading the opposition to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. That legislation was a bipartisan effort in the Senate that only modestly reduced some mandatory minimum sentences primarily for nonviolent drug offenders. But for Sessions, even that was a step too far, and his obstruction helped to scuttle the effort.


Sessions’ stances on these bills are not surprising. Throughout his tenure on Capitol Hill, he has consistently blocked efforts to reduce unnecessarily long federal prison sentences and opposed efforts to increase oversight over troubled police departments. As attorney general, Sessions likely will continue to impede these types of proposals and instead advocate for expanding the reach of the criminal justice system.

A return of failed “law and order” policies under the Trump administration could contribute to the racial disparities beyond the current levels where African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. And he will likely have limited dialogue with many stakeholders who have a vested interest in public safety and reforming the criminal justice system, since he has referred to the efforts of the NAACP as trying to “force civil rights down the throats of people” and dismissed concerns voiced by the Black Lives Matter movement as “really radical” and “absolutely false.”

Should he become the next U.S. attorney general, Sessions’ influence will expand far beyond the one vote he previously held in Congress. Indeed, he will have the power of the U.S. Department of Justice to dramatically slow efforts to reform and right-size the criminal justice system. Sessions’ record puts him in lockstep with the new administration’s “law and order” goals, which casts further doubt on his ability to be an independent attorney general and expand justice for all Americans.

Ed Chung is Vice President for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. Danyelle Solomon is Director of Progress 2050 at the Center.

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Ed Chung

Senior Fellow

Danyelle Solomon

Former Vice President, Race and Ethnicity Policy