U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions just rescinded the Obama-era Justice department memo aimed at reducing and eliminating the use of private prisons by the federal prison system. Despite a numerically declining federal inmate population and an Inspector General’s report that private prisons have more security incidents and violations than government-run prisons, Sessions decided that the original decision “changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
The decision to continue using private prisons is quite disappointing. Though the majority of private prison use is by states (see this 2015 Justice Department report), the previous guidance by the Obama-era judiciary was a step in the right direction towards criminal justice reform more broadly and could have led the way to the decline of private prisons across the board.
Even more disturbing is the justification of the decision. “Long standing policy and practice” is a terrible reason to continue harmful policies. Furthermore, we should be alarmed by the proposition that the prison bureau will have “future needs” requiring increased usage of private prisons. Isn’t the population of federal prisons declining? What are these future needs that the AG is anticipating?
I expect there are at least three things we need to brace ourselves for in the “Law and Order” administration and this quietly administered change of course portends a Justice Department gearing up for decisive, sweeping, and unjust action:
- Mass deportations of undocumented immigrants. Though the policy of reducing the use of private prisons did not include a reduction in their use for immigration detention, this removes even the symbolism that incarceration would decrease in this country.
- Enforcement of federal marijuana prohibition. It is well-documented Sessions’ disdain for marijuana. Could there be a ramp up in federal enforcement despite more and more states deciding that prohibition is not necessary? Who will bear the brunt of this enforcement?
- Rollback of Obama-era mandatory minimum reductions. Could the justice department return to enforcing mandatory minimums and using harsh tactics to score convictions and coerced plea deals?
These are just a few of my preliminary concerns about what this quite reversal signals for the future. It does not strike me as being very Christian. Jesus declared in his call statement in Luke:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. – Luke 4:18-19 (NRSV)
Yet it seems we are on the path to creating more captives, endangering the lives and livelihood of the poor, allowing the sick to remain ill because they can’t pay for it, and have the audacity to proclaim the greatness of our nation rather than the Lord’s favor. If my speculation about the motives of this new Justice department is correct, than those of us called to do the work of the Lord must be prepared to resist the coming tide of “law and order.” If there is a long standing tradition worth preserving, it is the one that demands that we stand on the side of the marginalized.