On Thursday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer hinted, though did not confirm, that shiny new Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be just as bad on criminal justice as reform advocates have feared.
On the matter of medical marijuana, since an overwhelming majority of Americans support it, Donald Trump will be soft. On still majority-popular, but less so recreational marijuana, Spicer said “I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement” of federal law. Then using the oldest trick in the drug warrior book besides blatant racism, Spicer hinted that marijuana is a gateway drug.
Somehow states using federalism to move toward ending the war on pot means marijuana is to blame for an increase in opioid use (which, you know, came out of crackdowns on heroin, weed, and other physiological and psychological relief people desire for various ills).
Trump got off to a cracking start during his first month in office. A sloppy, cruel immigration halt on residents of seven Muslim-majority countries changed the plans of thousands of people already in the US, or on their way. So clunky was the order that people with permanent residency and green cards, as well as the occasional traveler from Jordan and other countries not affected by the ban, were imperiled. Also on Thursday, Trump referred to his plan of the mass deportation of immigrants as a “military operation,” then had Press Secretary Sean Spicer brush this off as a mere turn of phrase—albeit one coming from a man that you can bet has never heard of the Posse Comitatus Act.
For the past five or so years, America has been noticing that it made a few blunders on the matter of criminal justice reform. Suddenly, talk of the excesses of mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws wasn’t uncommon. Suddenly outlets besides Reason, or the Institute for Justice were talking about the madness of civil asset forfeiture. In 2011, 50 percent of Americans finally were pro-pot legalization. Suddenly, weirdly enough, there was a bipartisan push towards not some new government boondoggle, but towards fixing the mess that government had made that looked an awful lot like 2.3 million people behind bars. Suddenly, the people of Colorado and Washington state voted yes on recreational marijuana, and it looked as if the drug war had an end date, however hazy. Suddenly, Obama remembered he had the power of the pardon, and began to use it while reveling in his lame duck status.
Unfortunately, every four to eight years, the US gets another enthusiastic president with plenty of political capital to spend. This time that individual is Trump, a man who on the campaign trail frequently ran his hands over the “oppressed” status of US police officers. Last year saw an increase in violent deaths of police officers, as did the last several. But that was practically inevitable when these numbers bottomed out at a historical low of 35 deaths in 2013. If you look back at the numbers from previous decades, especially the 1930s and 1970s, they were much higher. And that was an America that contained fewer people, and fewer cops.
Government power thrives on panic, and if there’s a seed of truth for it to grow out of, so much the better. There were a few high-profile assassinations of police officers, and there were a lot more peaceful people upset about law enforcement after the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Kelly Thomas and others. The corresponding national media coverage of these high profile deaths at the hands of police led many to believe there was now a “war on cops.”
Police have numerous legal protections even when they use deadly force. On the rare occasions that they were tried for something, they are rarely punished. Juries and prosecutors both seem unwilling to hold police as accountable for a crime as they would a regular person.
Sadly, playing the oppressed police card helped Trump. The National Fraternal Order of Police and the Border Patrol both endorsed him for president. The former is merely a PR firm for police, acting as their unqualified defenders when they get into trouble. The latter may be more generally supported by conservatives, in spite of its multi-billion-dollar price tag, but it’s delusional to suggest that immigration enforcement can be untied from authoritarian law and order measures. Border Patrol always has additional jurisdiction over anywhere 100 miles from a border or ocean, thanks to a too-long-unnoticed Supreme Court decision. Under Trump, they appear to be invigorated, and are already harassing legal immigrants, and removing undocumented ones with brain tumors from hospitals, seemingly with little regard for any negative PR that might bring.
Further encouraging those who profit from excess law and order, Sessions reversed an Obama decision to (slowly, eventually) stop using private prisons. Private prisons are often a scapegoat from the left. Generally, they are no better and no worse than regular prisons, and that’s bad enough. However, the benefit greatly from the thousands of immigrants the US detains. They’re going to be fat and happy if Trump really does pull off this deporting 12 million people thing.
Trump has terrible and frightening instincts that point in all the wrong directions. Earlier this month, while hosting a meeting of sheriffs at the White House, one whined to Trump about an unnamed Texas politician trying to reform asset forfeiture. In what was ultimately a joke, but not funny, Trump said “You want to give us his name? We’ll destroy his career.”
Most likely, the president has no idea how civil asset forfeiture works—that it’s legalized theft levied against people before they are convicted or even charged of a crime, and that it’s particularly perverse incentive for law enforcement to go after the wrong things. Laws vary from state to state (and the feds play their part), but in some it is particularly shameless. Usually used for supposed drug criminals, it’s also been suggested for targeting prostitution. The Arizona senate, for example, just passed a law that would allow the use of asset forfeiture if you are involved in a protest that turns into a riot. Considering that nearly every protest ever contains rogue and sometime violent elements, this is tantamount to violating the First Amendment (thankfully, it feels as if it could easily be overturned on those and many other grounds).
Barring his promise to build a really big wall, and to browbeat businesses into staying in the US, Trump appears happy to let his people do things on his behalf. In the case of Sessions and the DOJ, that looks as if it may just be the same failed policies that have wasted billion of dollars and thousands of lives for decades.