Senator Jeff Sessions: A Threat to American Justice

By Clarence Okoh and Kisha Bird

This week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on Senator Jeff Sessions’ (AL-R) nomination for attorney general.  If approved, his nomination will move to the Senate floor. The vote follows a confirmation hearing where Mr. Sessions did not provide any assurances that he would diverge from his 40-year record of eroding civil and human rights and opposing federal protections for vulnerable communities.

This vote also comes in the wake of President Trump’s sweeping executive orders that put immigrant and refugee families at risk. This includes provisions to withhold federal funding from sanctuary jurisdictions and ban entry for immigrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Additionally, the orders undermine refugee resettlement programs by significantly reducing the number of refugees accepted into the United States, with strict restrictions on asylum seekers from war-torn Syria and other predominantly Muslim countries.

In light of these developments, the Senate Judiciary Committee should further question Mr. Sessions to determine his perspective on the president’s immigration policies. Given the Administration’s ongoing hostility toward immigrants and religious minorities, it’s more essential than ever to appoint an attorney general who will vigorously defend American civil liberties. Mr. Sessions’ record strongly suggests he isn’t up to the task.

Mr. Sessions has repeatedly opposed legislation and policy advancements that protect women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals; immigrants; and people of color.  He voted ‘no’ on reauthorizing the Violence against Women Act and Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded hate crimes to include sexual orientation. Sessions has strongly supported policies that disenfranchise people of color, supporting voter ID laws and applauding the Supreme Court for dismantling the Voting Rights Act.  Moreover, he has endorsed mandatory minimums as well as legislation allowing states to charge and imprison 14-year-old children as adults. He has also blocked immigration reform and condemned federal investigations into law enforcement misconduct.

In recent years, policymakers have embraced bipartisan criminal and juvenile justice reform. Across the country, state and local governments, law enforcement agencies, school districts, and community stakeholders are coming together around restorative justice policies, alternatives to youth incarceration, school discipline reform, and reentry pathways to jobs and education. However, Sessions has consistently undermined these efforts. His explosive rhetoric and troubling record, coupled with President Trump’s dangerous “law and order” proposals, place immigrants, communities of color, and bipartisan progress at risk. 

Law and order strategies are manifested, in part, through the criminalization of poverty and adolescent behavior; the expansion of law enforcement presence into nontraditional settings such as schools; and insufficient enforcement of civil rights protections. By reviving these antiquated strategies, the Administration will erode trust in the police, destabilize families and communities, and perpetuate disparities based on race, class, gender, and ability. Further, law-and-order interventions will result in higher rates of recidivism—straining already-tenuous state and local budgets.

It’s patently unjust to punish people unevenly based on race, ethnicity, gender, or status.  Youth justice must begin with a set of principles that recognizes the roles of structural racism and systemic barriers in creating disparities. We shouldn’t demonize adolescent behavior; instead, we need to center youth voice and invest in data-driven solutions that empower young people. That includes providing alternatives to incarceration and supporting successful reentry for those young people who have been justice involved.

CLASP calls on policymakers and advocates to reject Mr. Sessions and his blatant hostility toward civil and human rights.  The U.S. cannot afford an attorney general whose legislative and legal records are antithetical to the ideal of equal justice. Several senators, including Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have declared their opposition. We urge the rest of the Senate to follow their lead. And we encourage advocates to fight every effort to undermine principled justice reform with failed law-and-order policies.  There’s too much at stake to remain silent.

Contact your senators and urge them to stop Senator Sessions from becoming America’s next attorney general.