How US Attorney General Jeff Sessions Has Rolled Back Obama-era Policies

Every attorney general leaves his imprint on the U.S. Justice Department. Jeff Sessions is no exception.

Since being sworn in as the nation’s 84th attorney general in February, the former Republican senator and federal prosecutor has moved to radically overhaul the Justice Department and its approach to law enforcement.

From scrapping civil rights protections for transgender people to ending leniency in sentencing criminal defendants, Sessions has rolled back a host of policies his two immediate predecessors — Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder, both chosen by former President Barack Obama — enacted to promote civil rights and social justice.

The policy reversals have not been without their critics.

While Sessions and his supporters say the attorney general is restoring the rule of law and ending Obama-era policies that amounted to executive overreach, critics say he’s returning to criminal justice policies that led to mass incarceration and undermined civil rights.

​Blistering criticism

Sessions’ singular success in remolding the Justice Department is widely acknowledged. The irony is that it has come in the face of sometimes blistering personal criticism of the attorney general by his boss, President Donald Trump.

An early and ardent supporter of Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, Sessions was rewarded with one of the most coveted positions in the administration.

But his relationship with Trump soured after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation in March, following revelations that Sessions had not disclosed meetings with Russia’s former ambassador to Washington during the presidential campaign.

Trump is said to have become so frustrated with his attorney general over the summer that he said he would not have picked Sessions for the job, had he known Sessions would have recused himself from the Russia probe.

But the attorney general largely shrugged off the criticism, saying at a news conference in July that he was “confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way,” and later traveling around the country to sell Trump’s tough on crime and immigration policies.

Here is a look at seven major Obama-era policies Sessions has rolled back, or attempted to, since taking office:

​Keeping private prisons

In his first act as attorney general in February, Sessions scrapped an Obama administration plan to phase out the use of private prisons for federal inmates. The 2016 direction to the Bureau of Prisons was sent after a harshly critical report about private prisons by the Justice Department’s inspector general. But Sessions said the Obama policy “impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”

Dropping transgender protections

Also in February, Sessions directed the Justice Department to withdraw a guidance issued in 2016, requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.

In October, Sessions rescinded another policy memo issued by the Obama administration that said the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s employment discrimination prohibitions applied to transgender people. Rights group Human Rights Campaign called the move “discriminatory” against the transgender community and a “dangerous change of course.”

​Targeting sanctuary cities

With the Trump administration vowing to crack down on illegal immigration, it has fallen to Sessions to enforce one of the administration’s most controversial policies: cutting off federal funding to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, cities and counties that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

In April, Sessions sent letters to nine sanctuary jurisdictions requiring proof of compliance. In July, he announced that sanctuary cities would not be eligible for millions of dollars in funds for policing.

Chicago and Philadelphia later sued Sessions and the Justice Department over the sanctuary plan. In November, a federal judge permanently blocked Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities.

Reviewing consent decrees

In April, Sessions ordered a review of Obama-era reform agreements between the Justice Department and police agencies, saying, “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”

Known as “consent decrees,” a dozen such court-enforced agreements were struck between the Obama Justice Department and local police departments. Sessions has said the agreements have demoralized police departments, but civil rights advocates say they have helped produce necessary reforms.

Charging and sentencing policy

In a departure from the Obama administration’s policy of leniency in sentencing low-level, nonviolent offenders, Sessions directed federal prosecutors in May to “pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” with the lengthiest sentences in all criminal cases.

The guideline rescinded a 2013 memo by then-Attorney General Eric Holder directing prosecutors to avoid triggering mandatory-minimum sentences for certain nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.

Sessions said the new charging policy “affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency.” But critics, such as former Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, have slammed it as a failed “one-size-fits-all” policy that has swelled America’s prison population.

​Affirmative action

In October, the Department of Justice announced it had reopened an investigation into Harvard University’s use of race in its admissions policy, raising fears the administration will target affirmative action policies widely practiced by American universities and colleges.

The Justice Department probe was triggered by a 2015 complaint against Harvard filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups. The Justice Department said the investigation is limited to the complaint against Harvard, but civil rights activists fear the probe is part of a broader effort to undermine affirmative action policies that date back decades and that supporters say have leveled the playing field for otherwise disadvantaged students.

Return to debtors’ prison?

On Dec. 21, Sessions rescinded a 2016 Justice Department letter advising local courts against hitting indigent defendants with stiff fines and fees.

The 2016 letter said the changes were “needed to guarantee equal justice under law to everyone, regardless of their financial circumstances.”

Sessions said he was rescinding the letter and 25 other so-called “guidance documents” because they were “unnecessary, inconsistent with existing law or otherwise improper.” The move provoked a firestorm, leading critics to decry it as a “criminalization of poverty” and a “return to debtors’ prisons.”

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