Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that his Justice Department would target recent rises in crime by prioritizing gun and drug offenses and supporting local law enforcement, who he said had been “unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors.”
During remarks to the National Association of Attorneys General, Sessions began by subtly correcting President Donald Trump.
“Overall, crime rates in the United States remain near historic lows,” he said, according to prepared remarks emailed to reporters. “Murder rates are half of what they were in 1980. The rate of violent crime has fallen by almost half from its peak in the early 1990s.”
Trump has frequently and falsely claimed the opposite; for example, that the murder rate “is the highest it’s been in 47 years.”
Still, the bulk of Sessions speech jived with the President’s “law-and-order” message – that violent crime and murder rates saw an uptick between 2014 and 2015, the last year for which we have complete numbers, and that something must be done.
Sessions compared the rise to the spike in crime in the 60s and 70s, and said he would increase prosecution of gun crimes, illegal immigration and gang activity.
“[I]llegal drugs flood across our southern border and into cities and towns across our country, bringing violence, addiction and misery. In particular, we’ve seen an increase in the trafficking of new, low-cost heroin by Mexican drug cartels working with local street gangs,” Sessions said.
“As the market for this heroin expands, gangs fight for territory and new customers and neighborhoods are caught in the crossfire,” he continued. “In recent years, we’ve also seen a significant shift in the priority given to prosecuting gun and drug offenders at the federal level. While numbers don’t tell the whole story, I still find the following statistics troubling: at the end of 2015 there were more than 7 percent fewer federal gun prosecutions than five years before. In that same five-year period, federal drug prosecutions declined by 18 percent.
“Under my leadership at the Department of Justice, this trend will end,” he said.
Sessions, a hearty supporter of the war on drugs in the past, has also signaled that the federal government could crack down on marijuana use, saying, “experts are telling me there’s more violence around marijuana than one would think.”
Sessions also cited the “age of viral videos and targeted killings of police” as a source of law enforcement caution on the local level, seemingly referring to a swell in recent years of police killings caught on video.
“[M]any of our men and women in law enforcement are becoming more cautious” as a result, he said. “They’re more reluctant to get out of their squad cars and do the hard but necessary work of up-close policing that builds trust and prevents violent crime.”
Sessions cited the need for a “humane prison system,” but then directly contrasted the costs of incarceration with those of crime.
“Yes, incarceration is painful for the families of inmates, and every conviction represents a failure on multiple levels of society,” he said, “but the costs of rising crime are even more severe.”