Attorney General Jeff Sessions blasted federal sentencing reform efforts Thursday, saying that with violent crime rates rising, now is not the time to lighten sentences.
Sessions's comments came during an address to the Oklahoma Sheriff's Association in Midwest City, Okla. He alluded to spiking violent crime rate in the United States. Violent crime increased in both 2015 and 2016, a stark reversal of trend. Violent crime rose by 3.4 percent overall in 2016; murders rose by 8.2 percent, representing a roughly 20 percent increase since 2014. Violent crime has increased in 38 out of 50 states, and in urban, suburban, and rural areas.
Sessions also pointed to the opioid epidemic, which has claimed some 49,000 out of the 64,000 lives taken by drug overdoses in 2016.
"And yet, despite the national surge in violent crime and the record number of drug deaths over the last two years, there is a move to even lighter sentences. We must be careful here. Federal prison population is down 15 percent – the average sentence is down 19 percent. Crime is up," Sessions said.
Sessions conceded that sometimes it is "prudent" to reduce sentencing, noting his work, while still in the Senate, with Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.
"But I'm afraid we don't have a sentencing problem; we have a crime problem. If we want to bring down our prison population then we should bring down crime," Sessions said.
Sessions comments may have been in response to efforts by Senate Democrats and Republicans to reduce harshness in federal sentencing.
Three bills—two with bipartisan support and one conceived wholly by Republicans—are focused on reforming federal sentencing rules and, in two cases, reducing the overall federal prison population through less harsh sentences for certain groups of offenders.
One bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), is intended as a corrective to the perceived excesses of the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act (SRA), which substantially increased the federal prison population through mandatory minimums and harsher sentencing guidelines. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) who, along with Durbin, coauthored the SRCA, said of the SRA that "some of the changes made in the 1980 legislation went too far, or had consequences beyond what anybody expected at that particular time."
Sessions, however, argued on Tuesday that the SRA was a success, a valuable tool for law prosecutors in the crime-ridden 1980s.
"In 1984 I had been a federal prosecutor for six years when Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act. This law instituted mandatory minimum sentences, sentencing guidelines, truth in sentencing, and ended federal parole. I was a prosecutor before this law, and I was a prosecutor after it went into effect. It's clear to me that it worked. We saw crime rates cut in half, neighborhoods revitalized, and general law and order restored on our streets," Sessions said.
Whether or not the sentencing reform bills — the SRCA, the Smarter Sentencing Act, and the Mens Rea Reform Act — will earn the support of Sessions and President Donald Trump remains to be seen.