Tribune Editorial: Lee is right to oppose attorney general’s step backwards

First Published      Last Updated May 17 2017 10:32 am

"The darker the night, the brighter the stars."

— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, "Crime and Punishment"

The dark night is coming.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is set to roll back years worth of criminal justice reforms across the nation with a new "tough on crime" agenda that salutes a 1990s-era lock-em-up mentality.

In an eight-page memo, Sessions informed federal prosecutors that his new agenda requires them to seek the most severe penalties possible, including in the prosecution of drug crimes. Because apparently we are still fighting the 1970s-era war on drugs. The new policies will reverse Obama-era guidelines that federal prosecutors use their discretion in deciding which crimes to charge, especially where minimum mandatory sentences would apply.

Part of this agenda also includes prosecuting gun crimes in federal court instead of under weaker state statutes. It is ironic that a Republican-appointed attorney general wants more federal involvement in crime-fighting – because federalism is a war cry only when it is convenient.

Sessions' tough-on-crime rhetoric has prison administrators nervous, as they see an inevitable increase in prison populations. The tougher policies will dim the light of recent state criminal justice reforms, including Utah's own Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant explained the JRI "was predicated on the demonstrated fact that it is more effective to treat substance abuse and mental health needs – which prevents recidivism – than to imprison."

Our own Sen. Mike Lee pushed back against Sessions' tough-on-crime agenda with a tweet last Friday that "to be tough on crime we have to be smart on crime. That is why criminal justice reform is a conservative issue." Indeed, in 2015 Lee introduced a bill that cut minimum-mandatory sentences for non-violent drug crimes. Rep. Mia Love echoed this call for smart on crime policy reforms.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul agrees with Lee's apprehension. He said, "Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long. Attorney General Sessions' new policy will accentuate that injustice."

Utah leaders similarly passed smart on crime reform in 2015 with the JRI. It seems to be working to reduce drug charges, but most agree we need funding for more treatment centers for both substance abuse and mental health before we can call it a success.

These efforts are bright stars in the rehabilitation of non-violent criminal offenders. Sessions seems to be alone in his call for a new strategy. Prosecutors across the nation should ignore his out-dated directives.