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Haley Holik | December 5, 2016
Following the results of the presidential election, some critics predicted the stalling of criminal justice reform. They questioned how the movement could possibly advance during the president-elect’s approaching term. The general feeling among these proponents was doom and gloom—the “law and order” candidate won the election, he would soon be in the White House, and all hope for positive change within the criminal justice system was shattered.
Their hand wringing continued when Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions was chosen to serve as Attorney General for the incoming administration. Amid accusations of racism, commentators readily dismissed the opportunity for criminal justice reform with Sessions acting as Attorney General, citing his opposition to bill that would alter sentencing laws for low-level federal offenders.
These dismal and reactionary views concerning the future of criminal justice reform are simply unfounded, and largely issued by those on the left who appear distraught over the results of the election. Operating under the belief that the President, or his or her appointees, exert such a great amount of influence over criminal justice reform implicitly fails to recognize the history and driving force behind the entire movement—the states.
Regardless of who happens to hold the position of Commander in Chief, it remains true that lawmakers at the state and local level possess the most power to create prudent and effective policies with the greatest impact. In conjunction with state crimes, state lawmakers determine policies on mandatory minimums, create and initiate alternatives to incarceration, and approve rehabilitation and treatment programs. As seen in the last ten years in Texas, it is possible to achieve lower crime rates in a cost-effective manner without any sort of intervention from the executive branch. To declare criminal justice reform defunct or even in peril because of a presidential election exhibits a grave misunderstanding of how positive change is effectuated.
In the same vein, as an appointee of the President, the Attorney General does not wield the power to blockade criminal justice reform as many on the left have so ardently concluded. Concerning Sessions specifically, critics fail to acknowledge the monumental work he began in the realm of criminal justice reform in 2001 by introducing a federal bill that reduced the drastic disparity between punishment for crack versus powdered cocaine. At the time, laws punishing users of crack cocaine were 100 times harsher than those of powdered cocaine. Sessions argued the disparities were racially fueled, contending crack was an inner-city drug while powdered cocaine was popular among Wall Streeters. It wasn’t until 2010, after years of work to advance the legislation, that the final version was passed by Congress and the disparities were reduced. It should come as no surprise, then, that the accusations of Sessions’ alleged racism are replete with inaccuracies, based on remarks purportedly made over thirty years ago.
Criminal justice reform at the federal level should not and will not be ignored, particularly addressing overcriminalization and sentencing policies. However, it is important to remember that it, along with the President’s influence over the matter, is a relatively small sliver of the pie. Furthermore, the acting Attorney General, whomever he or she may be at any given time, will not usurp the power of the states. As such, criminal justice reform has always been, and will continue to be, primarily a state effort that is largely unaffected by presidential elections or attorney generals.