Sessions' Tough-on-Crime Tactics Have a History of Failure, Scholars Say

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, March 2. Reuters

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to reduce crime by federalizing prosecutions for gun and other violent crimes—an old tactic some law professors believe is outdated.

Sessions released a memo Wednesday that directs federal prosecutors to partner with local authorities to target violent offenders and “use the substantial tools at their disposal to hold them accountable” under federal law when “appropriate.” The effort seems to be a part of the new administration’s tough-on-crime approach, but longer sentencing for violent offenders under federal law has already been tried and failed, says Jeffrey Fagan, professor of law at Columbia University and senior research scholar at Yale Law School.

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Laws related to violent crime vary state-to-state, and federal laws usually include longer sentences than state laws. For instance, the criminal possession of a firearm can get you up to seven years in New York, while the punishment under the federal statute for the same offense can get you up to 10 years.

“What offenders respond to is the threat of being caught and punished, not the severity of the punishment,” Fagan says. “The empirical evidence is quite conclusive, and [Sessions] is ignoring it.”

Fagan likened Sessions’ memo to a crime deterrence effort between federal and local authorities launched in 1997 in Richmond, VA, called Project Exile. The project was “not terribly effective,” Fagan says. In 2007, Fagan co-authored a report on the effectiveness of a predecessor of Project Exile called Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) in Chicago. With a “stick and carrot” approach, this project was aimed at gun offenders who were released from state custody or placed on probation. The program combined incentives such as social and economic services with the threat of surveillance to remind offenders that they were being watched.

“The stick without the carrot is what [Sessions] is proposing now,” Fagan says.

The lead author of the PSN report, associate professor of sociology at Yale University, Andrew Papachristos, explained via email that the number of prosecutions or sentence length mattered little in determining the success of federal involvement in local crime. Rather, “the ways the feds help lead and sustain legitimacy and trust [in] enhancing programs” is critical to the programs’ success, says Papachristos.

Jeff Sessions Memo on Violent Crime by Newsweek on Scribd

“[The federal government] can play a role,” Papachristos says. “PSN continues to this day in Chicago. But it's not necessarily just by ramping up prosecutions.” Fagan believes that Sessions’ proposal is “a very different enterprise” than PSN.

Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and also a co-author of a study on Project Exile, believes that Sessions’ approach—taken “at literal face value”—will take pressure off of local authorities with low budgets. Rosenfeld was the lead researcher of a study that “suggests that Exile may have given a contribution” to a decline in homicides in Richmond, and he believes  strengthening the partnership between local and federal prosecutors is a “good thing” in “most cases.”

“Sessions calls attention to the fact that homicide rates went up about 11 percent in 2015,” Rosenfeld says. “In big cities, homicide rates went up about [14 percent]. Those are huge double-digit rises in homicide especially coming on the heels of years of crime decreasing.”

David McDowall, a criminal justice professor at the University at Albany, believes that the numbers are not as alarming as they seem. “Crime goes up by relatively small amounts for a variety of reasons,” McDowall says. “It’s also the case that all crimes, including violent crimes, are near historic lows. These are increases from very low levels.”

The last time the murder rate increased was in 2006 by about 3 and half percent. From 1999 to 2007, the rate fluctuated between 5.5 and 5.8 murders per 100,000 people. The murder rate in 2015 was 4.9 murders per 100,000 people compared to 7.4 murders per 100,000 people in 1996.

“It looks like he wants the federal government to take over and do something ‘about crime’ with no coherent strategy,” McDowall says. “Sweeping up more people up and putting them in prison is a controversial thing. The general weight of evidence is that it doesn’t work to reduce crime.”