The United States is addicted to locking up black people. Home to roughly 5% of the world’s population, the United States has more than 20% of the world’s total prison population. And black people account for about 37.7% of America’s prisoners, despite representing only 13% of the population.
America’s long-standing tradition of incarcerating black people had many dedicated advocates over the years. From Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs in the 1980s to Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, the system has always run like a well-oiled bipartisan machine.
But Republicans are the masters of selling the theory that the best way to create a safe society for all is to be tough on crime. And it’s not a toughness that applies equally to all. A certain segment of society ends up taking on the role of the inconvenient villain, which is how criminals consistently and disproportionately end up being browner, blacker, and poorer.
So will things get worse under the Trump administration? Sadly, the signs are pointing to a resounding yes.
Enter Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, and a man with a long track record of trying to erase black people, whether by removing them from voter rolls or hiding them away in prisons.
Now he’s peddling fear. From the day he was sworn in, Sessions has been saying we have a “crime problem” that he views as “a dangerous, permanent trend that places the health and safety of American people at risk.”
From day one as attorney general Sessions went to work rolling back efforts to investigate and reform local police departments accused of brutality or racial discrimination. According to Sessions, “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” Oversight be damned.
Sessions has also instructed all U.S. attorneys to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” an order requiring federal prosecutors to pursue the strictest penalty or longest sentence. That too is a reversal of policy set forth by Obama’s Justice Department to allow for discretion when sentencing low-level nonviolent drug offenders.
Sessions also undid a policy adopted by the Obama administration to phase out the use of private prisons, noting that it “impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
These are the kind of initiatives that only reinforce the mantra that Sessions probably mumbles to himself every day on the way to the office: “We have a crime problem.” But Sessions is mischaracterizing the scope of crime in America.
In reality, violent crime in America has declined sharply over the past 25 years. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime fell by 77% between 1993 and 2015. The FBI’s data shows the decline was closer to 50% during that same period, but it’s still a significant drop. Regardless of whose data you use, the numbers show that Sessions’ repeated claims about America’s serious crime problem fact-check as either dubious or flat-out wrong.
So what’s the endgame?
Perhaps it’s best expressed in GOP-speak. Let’s call it the theory of “trickle-down criminal justice.” Trickle-down, a term typically associated with economics, was popularized in the 1980s during the Reagan administration. The basic premise is that the best way to grow the economy for everyone is to provide tax breaks and various incentives for the wealthiest individuals and corporations who will then create opportunities that will ultimately trickle down to the less privileged.
The criminal justice system in America has the same trickle-down framework. In trickle-down criminal justice, Republicans are basically redistributing the concepts of safety and fear — a redistribution sold as being for the greater good, but only benefiting the most privileged. So while safety is being sold to some, the steep cost is an existential danger to others.
The lie in both trickle-down models is that there’s a boogeyman who is the cause of everyone else’s pain and misfortune. That boogeyman tends to be the most vulnerable among us. In trickle-down economics, that boogeyman is lazy brown-skinned folk. In trickle-down criminal justice, the boogeyman is dangerous brown-skinned folk. Both are inherently suspect, not to be trusted, and are the enemies of order and justice.
Trickle-down models are structured to preserve power. It’s a design that has long been a part of America’s fabric, but it’s also one that looks to be enthusiastically embraced during the Trump administration by Jefferson Sessions at the Department of Justice.