No Justice at Justice: One Year Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions

By Diallo Brooks

After one year with Jeff Sessions as the head of the Department of Justice, it’s clear that his work to turn back the clock on decades of reforms that make communities safer is charging forward at full speed. From civil rights enforcement to police reform, Sessions has taken the Department of Justice out of the business of protecting vulnerable communities.

Looking at DOJ’s changed approach to working with police departments provides a clear — and disturbing — example. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department took important steps aimed at improving policing practices in communities around the country, particularly in communities of color. The Justice Department pulled together important conversations with law enforcement, community leaders and reform experts to craft recommendations for 21st century policing. They also took steps to hold local jurisdictions accountable for police misconduct. Many municipalities are already implementing these important changes.

Sessions, however, has asked Department of Justice staff to review those recommendations, likely with an eye toward watering them down or abolishing them altogether.

He hasn’t stopped there. Sessions was part of lifting the ban on military equipment being sent to police departments around the country, highlighting this administration’s burning desire to move toward what experts have long identified as troubling approaches that undermine community safety and trust. Sessions sent a memo ordering a “review” of all previously established reform agreements between local police departments and the Department of Justice, in addition to other DOJ actions. These consent decrees were meant to curb police abuses that undermined community trust and safety. Sessions’ actions are forcing states to step in and make sure that police accountability moves forward. And it’s not clear that all states will step up.

When it comes to civil rights enforcement, the landscape is just as bleak. Under Sessions, many of the past advances made under both Democratic and Republican administrations are being stripped away. For example, the 2018 Trump-Sessions DOJ budget showed that this administration does not value civil rights, as they looked to cut back even further on civil rights enforcement. Despite increases in funding in other areas, Sessions’ budget called for the elimination of at least 121 positions in the Civil Rights Division. This will have a chilling impact on doing the critical work of protecting the rights of the most marginalized.

The budget also included a $2 million cut to programs carrying out the Violence Against Women Act and left out any mention of disability rights enforcement. In addition, Sessions’ budget language made clear that the Justice Department will “prioritize the review” of consent decrees about school desegregation, and that it will try to eliminate such agreements. These and other policies paint a grim picture of how Sessions has worked hard with Trump to undermine the federal role in protecting civil rights.

In his first year alone, Sessions has pushed one of the most important federal agencies away from its pivotal responsibility to protect vulnerable communities. We have to keep holding him accountable. After all, it is the duty of the attorney general and the Department of Justice to fight for justice.

Diallo Brooks is the senior director of outreach and public engagement at People For the American Way.