Magazine article The New Yorker

Reversal of Justice

Magazine article The New Yorker

Reversal of Justice

Article excerpt

Reversal of Justice

The dismay that the neophytes in the Trump Administration elicit tends to follow three stages: alarm at what they say, shock at what they do, and outrage at what they propose to do next. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is no political neophyte--he represented Alabama in the Senate for twenty years--but the pattern still applies. His confirmation hearing included a reminder of an indulgent jest he once made about the Ku Klux Klan. On the Senate floor, Elizabeth Warren was silenced when she tried to read from a letter in which Coretta Scott King stated her concerns about his character. And anger has met his defense of President Trump's travel bans and immigration crackdowns, and, more recently, his attempts to undermine criminal-justice reform.

As much as anyone in the Trump Administration, Sessions seems eager to eradicate any trace of Barack Obama's tenure. Last week, he took aim at two Obama Administration initiatives on law enforcement. One established an independent scientific commission to look into faulty forensic practices that can produce unreliable evidence in criminal trials. Sessions said that an internal committee would now handle such matters. The other sought to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Instead, according to the Washington Post, Sessions will work on new policies with a veteran federal prosecutor named Steven H. Cook, who is a longtime enthusiast of the kind of severe drug-war penalties that provoked the mass-incarceration crisis in the first place.

Both measures appear to be part of a larger project: to encourage the harshest approaches to law enforcement. On April 3rd, Sessions instructed the Justice Department to review consent decrees in more than a dozen cities, including Ferguson, Newark, and New Orleans. The department also filed a motion for a ninety-day postponement of a decree worked out with the city of Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody there. That filing came just four days before a scheduled public hearing on the implementation of the decree, and a Maryland federal court denied the motion, stating that to postpone the hearing "would be to unduly burden and inconvenience the Court, the other parties, and, most importantly, the public." On April 6th, at Baltimore's U.S. district courthouse, nearly fifty speakers urged Judge James K. Bredar to approve the decree. The next day, he did so.

A consent decree allows the Justice Department to step in when one of the nation's eighteen thousand law-enforcement departments goes seriously awry. The decrees were created as part of the 1994 crime bill to address situations in which a "pattern or practice" of the police violated citizens' rights. The authors had in mind the notorious, caught-on-video beating of Rodney King by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department. A report found that repeated failures by the city to address police misconduct, including brutality and racial profiling, had contributed to a climate in which, twenty-five years ago this month, the acquittal of the four officers sparked five days of rioting that left more than fifty people dead.

When a law-enforcement crisis arises, the Justice Department may choose to initiate an investigation--in Baltimore, the police commissioner himself requested one. If the department finds evidence of systematic abuse, it will negotiate an agreement with representatives of the city leadership, the affected communities, and the police. …

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