Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Jeff Sessions and the Law & Order Flim-Flam

So, for better or worse, I'm back after a long absence. And what I want to talk about is "Law & Order". No, not the lousy TV show (don't hate, but it's terrible). But rather the favored topic of the GOP nominee, Donald Trump, and his main Senate surrogate, Jeff Sessions.

Now, let's be clear about one thing. "Law and Order" is a time-honored mantra of (usually conservative) politicians to scare nice white folks. Period. But the racial aspect of it is secondary to what I want to talk about. On August 3, 2016, President Obama commuted the sentences of 214 Federal inmates. Most of them were drug offenders, a small number had gun offenses. Like clockwork, Sen. Sessions sent up the "Law and Order" alarm. According to Sessions, the President's action was "reckless". Now, bear in mind that there are 193,299 Federal inmates. So 214 is .11% of the Federal population. Note the decimal point. Not 11%, but .11%. We're not exactly talking about throwing open the prison doors here. "Reckless" is an absurd description.

But Sen. Sessions was far from finished. He went on to state that those who were released were not "low-level, non-violent offenders, which simply do not exist in the Federal system". Do not exist. None. None at all. The guy who I represented who never met any of the top dealers in an oxy ring and in controlled buys over three years only had user-level quantities on two occasions must be a figment of my imagination, because Sen. Sessions says he "simply do{es} not exist in the Federal system". Ask any lawyer who has been involved in a drug conspiracy prosecution in Federal court about Sen. Sessions' statement. You'll have to wait for them to catch their breath after they're done laughing. The Federal prisons are FULL of low-level, non-violent offenders. Hell, it's what the Feds specialize in.

And the hits just kept on coming. Sen. Sessions stated that the commutations were poorly-timed because "violent crime is rising across the country since 2014". Understand that violent crime in this country has plummeted since 1991. Violent crime rates dropped 51% from 1991 to 2013. 2013 and 2014 are the lowest crime numbers this country has seen since before 1970. Did crime numbers creep up slightly in 2015? In some cities, yes. In others, no. But you are talking about very small increases from historic lows. In the first quarter of 2016, the murder rate in NYC is the lowest it's been since they have been tracking the numbers. So the hellscape that Sen. Sessions was clearly trying to imply is far, far from the truth. But what's the truth when there's fear to be stoked?

Not content with those misleading statistics, the good Senator from Alabama trotted out some more. He claimed that there is a 66.2% recidivism rate for Federal inmates. I searched for documentation of this claim and was unable to find any. What I did find was the March, 2016 report "Recidivism Among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview", published by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. That report gives you different numbers, depending on your definition of "recidivism". If you mean that the person is charged with another crime, that rate is 49.3%. But if you mean if that person is actually convicted of another crime, that rate is 31.7%. The actual conviction rate is the one you should be looking at, and even that is misleading, but the reasons for that are the subject of my next blog post, so you'll just have to tune back in. Suffice it to say that Sen. Sessions is greatly exaggerating the actual recidivism rate.

All of this completely ignores that most crime and punishment are dealt with in state courts, and that the President and the Congress actually can have little effect on any of that. But that has never stopped national politicians from demagoguing the issue. It is unfortunately enjoying a revival in this campaign year thanks to The Donald, ably assisted by Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, III.

If you are interested in more information about any of the quotes or statistics in this piece, the following articles and/or studies were used: