Since 2002, the US Department of Justice’s WEB Du Bois program has sponsored research fellowships on issues of race and criminal justice. During Republican and Democratic administrations, a diverse group of academics have carried the spirit of the noted sociologist and civil rights leader to the race challenges of the 21st century. Given the racial disparity endemic at every stage of the justice system the DoJ’s investigation of these issues has been praiseworthy.
But with Jeff Sessions as attorney general exploring the roots of this injustice may now be compromised. In the recently released solicitation for the Du Bois fellowships the DoJ invited scholars to engage in research on five issues arising out of the “tough on crime” era that would make a student of the Du Bois legacy shudder.
Whereas Du Bois is widely known for promoting the idea that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line”, the DoJ solicitation displays no interest in such high-profile issues as police killings of unarmed black men or the impact of mass incarceration on the African American community. Instead, “protecting police officers” is the only area of law enforcement prioritized by the DoJ.
Another research priority, “enhancing immigration enforcement”, coming at a moment when barely disguised racist imagery accompanies those policies, seems particularly jarring when upheld in the name of a civil rights legend.
The DoJ approach to research is unfortunately consistent with the misconstrued “law and order” agenda that Jeff Sessions has brought to his leadership. Within a month of taking office Sessions had rescinded the Obama-era decision to phase out federal contracting with private prisons. That initiative had been based in part on an inspector general’s finding that such prisons had higher levels of assault and safety concerns than public prisons.
Sessions overturned a policy adopted by his predecessor Eric Holder that urged federal prosecutors to use their discretion to avoid bringing drug charges that would carry a mandatory minimum sentence if the facts of the case suggested that the defendant had little criminal history and was not a major player in the drug trade. A year after its implementation the number of such sentences had declined by 25%, with no adverse effects on drug law enforcement.
In contrast, Sessions now requires that federal prosecutors seek the most serious charge they can bring in every case. This policy is faulty on two counts. First, it fails to recognize that no two crimes or defendants are exactly alike, and that sentencing needs to be individualized. Second, the directive conflicts with the ethical standard for prosecutors to seek justice, not vengeance. In some cases, justice may represent a prison term, in others it may be placement in residential drug treatment.
Sessions also has emerged as the primary political obstacle to the bipartisan sentencing reform movement on Capitol Hill, and joined with President Trump’s barbaric call for the death penalty for drug sellers. At a moment when Americans increasingly recognize that treatment is more effective than punishment for addressing addiction, such a dehumanizing message will only inflame the public debate in unproductive ways.
Perhaps most unsettling about the Du Bois initiative and the thrust of current policy is its disconnect from evidence and the current realities of crime and justice. Certainly law enforcement officers need to be protected as they do their jobs, but so do communities of color when they are harmed by racist policing. Suggesting that we need to enhance immigration enforcement at a time when this is already at record levels fails to engage in the vitally needed conversation about how to develop immigration policy that offers refuge to those fleeing violence and enhances cross-border economic opportunity and family stability.
It is often said that elections have consequences. Distorting history, though, and the contributions of past scholars is not a political consequence but rather degrades our intellectual tradition.