Criminal Justice Reform Under Sessions

At the end of the Obama administration, the Department of Justice rushed to release several reports about criminal justice in America, before the reports could be buried by the incoming Trump administration. One of those we recently discussed – the DOJ’s eleventh hour report about the Chicago Police Department’s institutional racism and use of excessive force. In December 2016, the DOJ also released an extremely disturbing report about Louisiana police officers’ routine use of an illegal and blatantly unconstitutional technique: secretly holding individuals indefinitely, without warrants, probable cause, or anything more than a vague hunch, in order to coerce them into giving the police information about a crime.

According to the DOJ’s 20-month investigation, Louisiana police officers admit that their normal procedure has been to use what they euphemistically call “investigative holds” as a regular part of their criminal investigations. The so-called investigative holds are meant to induce people to provide information to officers, under threat of being secretly jailed for as long as the cops like. These holds start with a strip search, and then individuals are placed in holding cells without beds, toilets, or showers. They are not allowed to call lawyers or even their family members to tell them where they are. Typical “investigative holds” last three days or more, without any opportunity for the individuals to contest their arrest and detention. The holds end when the individuals provide the police with information or the police just decide to let them go.

The path between this unconstitutional practice and wrongful convictions is clear. How many people told the police what they wanted to hear, just to escape this injustice? In our wrongful conviction cases, we frequently see instances where the eyewitnesses used to secure the erroneous convictions later admit that they lied on the witness stand because the police had threatened them. False confessions often happen because the police convince terrified people that confessing is the only way out. It’s not hard to imagine that after being held in a secret Louisiana jail cell for several days, people might finally agree to confess or to be a “witness” in a criminal case and say whatever the police tell them to say. The practice is appalling, and thankfully, the DOJ investigation has already sparked reforms to end this illegal practice.

But what will happen under this new administration? We likely know the answer. Under Obama, the DOJ began 23 investigations and entered 11 consent decrees mandating reforms in Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland and other cities. With Jeff Sessions as our country’s attorney general, the DOJ will not investigate injustices or require reforms through consent decrees. It is doubtful it will even follow up on ensuring that the badly needed Louisiana reforms happen. Sessions mostly opposes federal involvement in state and local affairs, including policing. During his confirmation hearing, he complained that police departments “often feel forced to agree to a consent decree.” Sessions strongly implied that he therefore might not even have the DOJ enforce existing consent decrees because it is “a difficult thing for a city to be sued by the Department of Justice and to be told that your police department is systematically failing to serve the people of the state or the city.”

Sessions is not going to further the police reforms this country desperately needs. He is an opponent of the very rights he is charged with enforcing, and criminal justice reform will come to a grinding halt under his watch. This will further erode confidence in law enforcement, as it is allowed to trample on the rights of the poor, racial and ethnic minority groups, and other groups that are not part of the traditional power structure. Just ask the people of Louisiana.


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