Dear Jeff Sessions, prosecuting guns more aggressively won’t make us safer
Jeff Sessions is at it again. In yet another public statement, the Attorney General has voiced his support for a range of discredited or highly controversial criminal justice policies. This time, Sessions delivered a series of tough-on-crime bromides to the National District Attorneys Association: harsh penalties are the solution to drug addiction; broken-windows policing works; more criminal prosecutions can resolve questions about immigration policies; and prosecutors should seek the most severe charge in every case.
There’s a lot in Sessions’ speech to worry criminal justice reformers and confound academics who study criminal law. To narrow the focus, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider Sessions’ statements on gun crime and what he gets wrong.
“I want to see a substantial increase in gun crime prosecutions,” Sessions told the assembled state prosecutors. “I believe, as we partner together and hammer criminals who carry firearms during crimes or criminals that possess firearms after being convicted of a felony, the effect will be to reduce violent crime.”
The Attorney General’s call to “hammer criminals” and increase prosecutions for illegal gun possession reflects an unfortunate view of gun control as an enterprise best suited to aggressive criminal enforcement. (In fairness, Sessions’ speech — and most of his public comments — indicate that he generally views aggressive criminal enforcement as the solution to social problems.)
As I have argued elsewhere, criminal gun possession statutes and “gun-centric” policing embody much of what’s wrong with the criminal justice system.
From a civil libertarian perspective, this mode of addressing gun violence is a nightmare: New York City’s stop-and-frisk program, the shooting of Philando Castile, and a range of Fourth Amendment cases show that gun possession crimes serve as an invitation for intrusive, violent policing. From a racial justice perspective, gun-centric policing and gun-crime prosecutions disproportionately affect people of color. And criminal gun possession statutes often carry mandatory minimum prison sentences, yielding lengthy terms of incarceration.
Gun violence in the United States is a serious problem. Full stop.
But, just because there’s a problem, it doesn’t mean that any solution is justified or that any policy response is a good one.
In his powerful new book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, James Forman, Jr. describes how progressive black activists in Washington, D.C. inadvertently helped contribute to a racialized system of mass incarceration. Forman emphasizes that these activists were confronting real problems of crime and violence in their communities, but that the response that emerged — harsh sentences and aggressive law enforcement — ultimately hurt those communities and helped cement an underclass of people with criminal records.
Forman’s account is critical to understanding the problem with the Attorney General’s full-throated endorsement of more criminal punishment. Sessions’ comments reflect a troubling argument — he cares about crime victims (as does his audience), and the only way to serve the interests of victims is to pursue harsh punishment and to “hammer criminals.” (It’s worth noting that, even if gun possession might raise the odds of eventual injury, possession itself doesn’t victimize.)
Forman’s account shows that harsh punishment doesn’t always serve victims, and that there are ways to address violence other than more punishment for more people. Recent studies suggest that many victims want a larger role in the criminal justice system and reject a punitive approach. And even preeminent victims’ rights advocate Paul Cassell has been critical of “unjust” sentences that result from mandatory minimum provisions of gun possession statutes.
Critics of mass incarceration have shown that defaulting to more punishment doesn’t necessarily prioritize the voices of victims, and it doesn’t necessarily reduce crime. Prosecutors on the state and local level should remember these lessons and examine other alternatives to addressing violence rather than advancing Sessions’ punitive agenda.