Toting signs that read: “No More Drug Wars” and “Drug Wars Destroy Families,” several dozen activists protested outside the U.S. Department of Justice May 16 calling for an immediate challenge to new federal drug sentencing policies handed down by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a recent memorandum. Noting the failures of heavy-handed drug sentencing on predominantly Black and Latino communities, protestors insist the memo encourages a return to pre-Civil Rights racial bias within the judicial system.
The reinstatement of federal drug sentencing policies according to Jasmine Tyler of the Open Society Foundations, have played a significant role in perpetuating mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the destruction of families. Of particular concern, for Tyler, is the memo’s push for federal prosecutors to seek the “most substantial sentence” for drug crimes, even those deemed low-level, nonviolent offenses.
“These guidance that has not just rolled back Obama policies, but is ignoring the science and data and families and stories who have suffered every [expletive] day because of unfair drug wars. Forty-five years later, we are still fighting and escalating a drug war that has failed,” Tyler told the crowd. “Failed on every metric because it cost too much, it hasn’t stopped drugs, and it will negatively impact the overdose crisis, which has surpassed HIV deaths from the 1980s.”
Sessions’ guidelines constitute a sharp departure from the Obama administration’s policies, implemented by Eric Holder, the former attorney general, which sought to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences against nonviolent drug offenders. Those policies, said WPFW host Roach Brown, along with President Barack Obama’s clemency program, helped the federal prison population drop by nearly 14 percent to 188,800.
“I believe that if we organize and mobilize across this country – targeting the elected officials in our areas – we can get Sessions out of office. They’re talking about destroying our kids – these young kids are going in at fifteen and sixteen, and getting life sentences, they are not coming out,” Brown told the AFRO. “When they lock up some kid through the school-to-prison pipeline for pulling on a girl’s hair and he is 10 years old, when he gets to high school and fills out an application for college, he cannot go, because they’ve taken his juvenile arrest, labeled it a felony assault, and he becomes a victim of mass incarceration though not physically in prison.”
Many protestors outside the Justice Department spoke of Sessions’ decision as a moral crisis that, while impacting Blacks and Latinos disproportionately, could begin to similarly and severely impact the growing illicit drug abuse among poor and middle-class Whites.
While not in attendance at the demonstration, Sen. Rand Paul, (R-Kent.), released a statement following the guidance release condemning the policy change.
“We should be treating our nation’s drug epidemic for what it is — a public health crisis, not an excuse to send people to prison and turn a mistake into a tragedy,” he wrote. “Mandatory sentencing automatically imposes a minimum number of years in prison for specific crimes — usually drug related.”