Under Obama, America’s addiction to mass incarceration seemed to fade. But then came Trump and a hardline attorney general
For many years research and advocacy groups had opposed mandatory minimum sentences as cripplingly expensive, marked by racial disparities and of dubious value for crime prevention. But the laws were still on the books and the federal prison population continued to grow.
In May, Sessions reversed his predecessor’s initiative, claiming, without evidence, that Holder’s sentencing changes had led to America’s sudden 10.8% increase in murders in 2015.
Sessions, a former senator from Alabama known for his hardline views on crime and legal immigration, had been denied a federal judgeship in 1986 over alleged racist comments and attacks on the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union (he first admitted, and then disputed, calling these organizations “un-American”). Martin Luther King’s widow had written a letter opposing Sessions’ appointment, saying he had “used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens” through “politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions”.
Appointing Sessions as attorney general “was like hosting a Confederate flag above the Department of Justice,” says Eugene Jarecki, a filmmaker who directed The House I Live In, an award-winning 2012 documentary about mass incarceration.