RICHMOND, Va. – Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday pledged aggressive criminal prosecution of drug dealers and gun-toting felons to combat what he described as a troubling rise in violent crime.
Related: Is Jeff Sessions at odds with President Trump on medical marijuana?
“I am determined that this country will not go backwards,” Sessions said as he addressed law enforcement officials in Richmond. “President Trump gave us a clear directive. It’s the policy of this administration to reduce crime in America, not preside over an increase in crime, but reduce crime.”
Sessions traveled to Virginia’s capital to highlight Project Exile, a two-decades old federal program slapping felons caught carrying guns with mandatory five-year prison sentences. Trump has said he would make crime-fighting a priority and has taken steps, including ordering the creation of a task force to recommend strategies.
“The crime rate in our country remains at historic lows,” Sessions acknowledged in his remarks. “But we’re beginning to see an increase again.”
He attributed that increase to less forceful prosecutions and lower sentences, a declining prison population and a growing opioid epidemic. He also said that “in this age of viral videos and targeted killings of police,” police officers in many communities were afraid to do their jobs.
The solution, he said, is to “hammer” drug dealers and other criminals while bringing back the drug abstinence campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s.
“We have too much of a tolerance for drug use,” Sessions said. “We need to say, as Nancy Reagan said, ‘Just say no.’ There’s no excuse for this, it’s not recreational. Lives are at stake, and we’re not going to worry about being fashionable.”
Sessions scoffed at the idea, promoted by some doctors and researchers, that medical marijuana can be used as an alternative painkiller to prevent or treat opioid addiction.
“I’ve heard people say we could solve our heroin problem with marijuana,” he said. “How stupid is that? Give me a break!”
After his speech, Sessions told reporters he was “dubious” of medical marijuana in general.
“Medical marijuana has been hyped, maybe too much,” he said. He added that his office may rethink parts of an Obama-era policy largely allowing individual states to legalize marijuana use.
Critics of Project Exile said the five-year mandatory minimum disproportionately affected poor black Americans. Sessions told reporters he was “sensitive to these issues,” but that most people in low-income African-American neighborhoods want tough criminal penalties.
Recalling his own time as an assistant U.S. attorney in Alabama, Sessions said “the people in those communities were pleading with us to. . .get the thugs off the street.”
Sessions’ visit to Richmond came amid questions over Trump’s wiretapping claims and Sessions’ own communications with the Russian government. The Justice Department asked this week for more time to turn over to the House Intelligence Committee any information that might back up the allegation that former president Obama spied on Trump during the campaign.
Sessions told reporters he had recused himself from that issue because of his involvement in the campaign and thus had no information on any possible wiretap. He added that he didn’t consider his meetings with the Russian ambassador to be “improper” because they discussed international issues like the Ukraine. “We didn’t talk about the campaign,” he said.
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But Sessions largely focused on his office’s role in prosecuting violent crime.
FBI Director James Comey helped create Project Exile in 1997 when he was an executive assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia.
The idea behind the program, which was started to combat the surging gang violence in Richmond, was to seize guns from people who were carrying them illegally and were most likely to use them in other crimes. At the time that Project Exile was launched, Richmond had one of the highest five murder per capita rates in the nation.
Its name came from the fact that, if convicted, a suspect would immediately be sent away to federal prison, often far from home.
During Project Exile’s first year, Richmond homicides declined 33 percent and armed robberies declined 30 percent.
By 1999, the project’s second year, homicides declined another 21 percent.
But sentencing reform advocates have criticized the program, which was replicated in some other cities, such as Rochester, New York..
“It’s far from clear that Project Exile produced any of the benefits supporters attribute to it,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, in an interview. “That’s no surprise. One-size-fits-all federal programs don’t work, even in criminal justice. The American way of doing justice is making the time fit the crime, not giving the same cookie cutter sentence to everyone.”
Ring said that national studies are mixed on the program’s results. Gun crime fell over the same period in cities that didn’t use Project Exile, he said.
Congressman Robert “Bobby” Scott, D-Va., who has opposed Project Exile for many years, said the crime rate actually fell further in parts of Virginia that did not use the program. “Everyone knows that mandatory minimums don’t work,” he said. “They have been studied extensively and fail to reduce crime and waste taxpayers’ money. . . . The only people they work for are politicians yelling at crowds trying to get a standing ovation.”
Project Exile continues, according to Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr, but Sessions said the number of cases brought under the policy has been declining.
“This downward trend is going to end,” he said. “We’re going to attempt to bring more of those cases and exile people out of Richmond to some federal penitentiary for a while.”
Here’s the portion of Sessions’ prepared speech that focused on marijuana:
There are three main ways to fight the scourge of drugs: criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention.
Criminal enforcement is essential to stop both the transnational cartels that ship drugs into our country, and the thugs and gangs who use violence and extortion to move their product. One of the President’s executive orders directed the Justice Department to dismantle these organizations and gangs – and we will do just that.
Treatment programs are also vital. But treatment often comes too late to save people from addiction or death.
So we need to focus on the third way we can fight drug use: preventing people from ever taking drugs in the first place.
I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use. But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable. I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.
In the ’80s and ’90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction. We can do this again. Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices. We can reduce the use of drugs, save lives and turn back the surge in crime that inevitably follows in the wake of increased drug abuse.