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Say Hello to Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Hugely Tremendous or Total Disaster for Criminal Justice Reform?

Sessions has a mixed record on criminal lawmaking, but he may very well take the idea of criminal justice "reform" as getting even tougher on crime.

Reagan and McGruff.jpg

AP Photo / Barry Thumma

Remember the go-go 1980s? There was McGruff the Crime Dog. There was "This is your brain on drugs." There was "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime," a line that seems tailored fit, as though Sen. Jefferson Sessions came up with it himself.

On Nov. 18, 2016, then President-elect Donald Trump made it known that he would nominate Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, making Sessions chief government lawyer and top "cop" as head of the Dept. of Justice. As a member of the President's Cabinet, Sessions would be one of Trump's trusted advisers on matters of justice and law enforcement.

That is exactly why Sessions has plenty of opposition among those who were hoping for progress on the issue of criminal justice reform.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has given its approval.

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee gave its thumbs-up to Sessions. Now the matter will move to the Senate itself for a confirmation vote. Then Trump will have as his Attorney General a man who is now widely considered to be among the most conservative lawmakers in the Senate.

Who is Jeff Sessions?

Sessions has been a federal prosecutor, the Attorney General of Alabama, and most recently a U.S. Senator. He's taken plenty of flak from critics, notably from Coretta Scott King, who wrote a letter addressed to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, in which she expressed strong opposition to Sessions' appointment to the bench.

In her letter, King referred to Sessions' prosecution in 1985 against three community organizers accused of voter fraud:

"Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney," King wrote, "to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts."

Sessions is only human, after all, and like all of us, likely has a cornucopia of positive and negative attributes. But, on paper and in past dealings, Sessions doesn't appear to have a particularly great track record when it comes to criminal justice reform, in terms of citizens' rights. If anything, Sessions might take the idea of "reform" as getting even tougher on crime, making the years of the Trump administration look much like the 1980s, with McGruff the Crime Dog, brains on drugs represented by eggs in frying pans, and severe sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Sessions is likely to have great respect for "due process" and for the law in general, but a quick look at civil forfeiture provides one example of why AG Sessions might not take too well to any reform as the Obama administration (and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers) conceived of it.

Sessions' take on civil forfeiture is take, take, take.

In April 2015, a Washington Post report on civil forfeiture indicated that Sessions opposed (and presumably still opposes) "any reform" of civil forfeiture law.

In general, civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize assets like cash and bank accounts if those assets are connected to a criminal offense or enterprise. But, as the Post reports, from 2001 to 2015, local and state police seized $2.5 billion in cash from those who were never even charged with a crime, or whose assets were seized at the hands of a cop with no warrant.

Even if that billion-dollar figure turns out to be inaccurate, just one penny unlawfully seized by the government is one penny too much.

As AG, Sessions will arguably have more power than ever before, and will use it to help shape the criminal justice system under a Trump administration, which has promised law and order. The only question is how "tough on crime" Sessions will get, in what way, and whether his approach will spell doom for citizens' hopes of criminal justice reform.

Let's hope not.

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