When the Obama administration launched a sweeping policy to reduce harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, rave reviews came from across the political spectrum. Civil rights groups and the Koch brothers praised Obama for his efforts, saying he was making the criminal justice system more humane.
But there was one person who watched these developments with some horror. Steven H. Cook, a former street cop who became a federal prosecutor based in Knoxville, Tenn., saw nothing wrong with how the system worked — not the life sentences for drug charges, not the huge growth of the prison population. And he went everywhere — Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, congressional hearings, public panels — to spread a different gospel.
“The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed,” Cook said at a criminal justice panel at The Washington Post last year.
The Obama administration largely ignored Cook, who was then president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. But he won’t be overlooked anymore.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has brought Cook into his inner circle at the Justice Department, appointing him to be one of his top lieutenants to help undo the criminal justice policies of Obama and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. As Sessions has traveled to different cities to preach his tough-on-crime philosophy, Cook has been at his side.
Sessions has yet to announce specific policy changes, but Cook’s new perch speaks volumes about where the Justice Department is headed.
Law enforcement officials say that Sessions and Cook are preparing a plan to prosecute more drug and gun cases and pursue mandatory minimum sentences. The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ’90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.
Crime is near historic lows in the United States, but Sessions says that the spike in homicides in several cities, including Chicago, is a harbinger of a “dangerous new trend” in America that requires a tough response.
“If there was a flickering candle of hope that remained for sentencing reform, Cook’s appointment was a fire hose,” said Ring, of FAMM. “There simply aren’t enough backhoes to build all the prisons it would take to realize Steve Cook’s vision for America.”
Sessions is also expected to take a harder line on the punishment for using and distributing marijuana, a drug he has long abhorred. His crime task force will review existing marijuana policy, according to a memo he wrote prosecutors last week. Using or distributing marijuana is illegal under federal law, which classifies it as a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin, and considered more dangerous than cocaine and methamphetamine.
In his effort to resurrect the practices of the drug war, it is still unclear what Sessions will do about the wave of states that have legalized marijuana in recent years. Eight states and the District of Columbia now permit the recreational use of marijuana, and 28 states and the District have legalized the use of medical marijuana.
But his rhetoric against weed seems to get stronger with each speech. In Richmond, he cast doubt on the use of medical marijuana and said it “has been hyped, maybe too much.”
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