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How an AG Jeff Sessions could change the conversation on criminal justice

As Sen. Jeff Sessions's confirmation hearings for Attorney General draw closer, critics worry that his nomination could slow the momentum of police reform measures, disrupt a growing bipartisan effort to roll back the war on drugs, and further polarize a divided America. 

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama waves to the crowd as he speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 18, 2016.
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As the Senate confirmation hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions draw closer, a growing list of opponents of the controversial attorney general nominee are calling on the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject his nomination.

The Republican lawyer-turned-senator from Alabama has been publicly denounced and protested in recent weeks by groups including the NAACP, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and more than 1,100 law school professors who sent a letter Tuesday urging the Senate to reject Sessions's nomination for attorney general next week. Those who oppose Sessions point to his hard-line stances on issues including immigration, marijuana, and police reform as grounds for the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject the nomination. But perhaps more prominently at the forefront of anti-Sessions arguments are the accusations of racial bias that have followed him throughout his career, particularly the comments that cost him a federal judgeship in 1986.

When one considers the law-and-order rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump's campaign, Sessions's political views are not particularly surprising, observers say. But at a time of increased societal polarization and racial tension surrounding issues of criminal justice reform, critics worry that his nomination – and the personal baggage that comes with it – could further drive a wedge between the two camps, slow or reverse the recent momentum of police reform efforts at the state and local levels, and potentially disrupt the growing bipartisan consensus among lawmakers on the need to roll back the war on drugs and repeal mandatory minimum sentences.

"One would expect a fairly hard line from a Trump Justice Department regardless of who’s nominated. But nominating Sessions helped to immediately infuse race into the conversation," says Steven Taylor, professor of political science at Troy University in Troy, Ala., in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "I presume it will make an already difficult situation more tense because you have this racial component woven into the conversation even more so than you otherwise would have." 

The resurfacing of decades-old racial comments allegedly made by Sessions, including accusations that Sessions repeatedly referred to a black assistant US attorney as "boy" and made an ill-received joke that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was "OK" until he learned of their marijuana use, has resulted in renewed scrutiny of the senator's personal character, as Patrik Jonsson reported for the Monitor in November: 

The selection of a man who was once denied a federal judgeship – by Republicans – over concerns about racism has raised alarm. On Mr. Trump’s team, he joins special adviser Steve Bannon, former head of a news organization accused of race-baiting and bigotry, and National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has made inflammatory statements against Islam.

But some caution against jumping to conclusions about Sessions, suggesting that he could be a balancing voice on Trump’s new team. While the concerns about racism are a clear part of Sessions’s record, so is his push to desegregate Alabama schools during his time as a US attorney, as well as his demand for the death penalty for the son of a Klan leader, who had randomly killed a black teen.

On a political level, the Sessions nomination is "a classic law-and-order message that goes beyond just immigration," Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, told the Monitor. "It has to do with many of the changes taking place in American society that make conservatives uncomfortable. He’ll be pushing back on those across the board. Immigration will be early and very visible. But if I were out in Colorado and California and owned a pot dispensary, I’d be checking my license." 

Sessions's nomination has drawn some comparisons to the similarly controversial appointment of Edwin Meese as attorney general under Ronald Reagan. But Sessions may take a less overt approach to reform than Mr. Meese, who aggressively pushed a clear policy agenda during his time as attorney general, says Cornell William Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. 

"My guess is what you'll see is him simply use the softer power of the executive branch, prosecutorial discretion, to send important signals to local law enforcement agencies and state and local governments," Dr. Clayton tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "That’s where you’re most likely to see the shift in federal law enforcement policy. There’s not going to be a sweeping reform bill. What you’ll see is an under the radar shift in enforcement policy and funding priorities." 

"That’s very real and very important, but it’s not high-profile like a crime reform bill would be," he adds. "So it doesn’t provide the same lever for counter-mobilization." 

Opposition to that shift among policymakers and local and state officials could take the form of Democratic state attorneys general suing the federal government, as Republican state attorneys general have sued the Obama administration. Clayton also predicts heightened involvement from some state and local law officials who may continue to push progressive reform agendas in the face of shifting federal policies.

Meanwhile, leaders of activist groups and movements such as Black Lives Matter could find new challenges in mobilizing and controlling protests and other on-the-ground efforts to counteract Sessions's influence, says Michael Flamm, a professor of history at Ohio Wesleyan University. 

"Sessions could significantly affect what support and faith exists in the minority community toward the criminal justice system," Professor Flamm, author of "In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime," tells the Monitor in a phone interview. Those working to keep civil and racial unrest following police shootings as peaceful as possible in recent years have been largely successful due to their argument that the federal government was "ultimately sympathetic to the cause of the protesters and would try to see that justice was done," he says. 

With Sessions as Attorney General, activist leaders who would like to structure such unrest into "peaceful and constructive demands for change are going to find it much harder to make their case," Flamm continues. "They're going to tell people, 'Let's work within the system. Let's try to bring about peaceful change.' That was an argument you could make during the Obama presidency. I don't think that's an argument you could make effectively during the Trump presidency."