While it may be months or years before the results of Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un are clear, his meeting with the other Kim was an unqualified success.
Last week, thanks to the reality TV star Kim Kardashian West’s intercession on her behalf, Alice Marie Johnson, a great-grandmother serving a life sentence for nonviolent drug offenses, walked free from a federal prison in Alabama after spending almost 22 years behind bars.
Critics of our excessively punitive criminal justice system, while pleasantly surprised by Trump’s commutation of Johnson’s sentence, do not hold out much hope that it marks a shift in attitude for a president who was elected on a “law and order” platform modeled after Richard Nixon’s. But there may be a way, short of finding a celebrity to adopt every federal prisoner who deserves similar relief, to encourage the president to use his clemency powers for good: by emphasizing how much it would upset Jeff Sessions.
The president has made no secret of his displeasure at the attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation of possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives who tried to influence the 2016 presidential election. Trump views the recusal, which led to the appointment of the special counsel who is conducting the “witch hunt” that bedevils him, as an unforgivable betrayal by an ally who should have placed loyalty above Justice Department guidelines.
Rather than fire the attorney general, which would reinforce the impression that the president has something to hide and alienate Sessions’ former colleagues in the Senate, Trump has been berating and belittling him for more than a year. Embarking on a series of commutations for drug offenders like Johnson, people serving ridiculously long sentences for crimes that violated no one’s rights, would be a great new way to torture Sessions, given his longstanding and strongly felt views on the subject.
Johnson, a first-time offender who got involved in the drug trade out of financial desperation, received a mandatory life sentence for passing along messages and holding money as part of an organization that moved cocaine from Houston to Memphis. Co-conspirators who pleaded guilty and testified against her received sentences ranging from probation to 10 years.
Even people who support the war on drugs should be able to see that Johnson got a pretty raw deal. But probably not Sessions, who as an Alabama senator called Barack Obama’s commutations for drug offenders “an alarming abuse of the pardon power” and “a thumb in the eye of the law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, court and prison personnel who put time and resources into these cases.”
In Sessions’ view, letting a small-time crack dealer go free after 10 years rather than 20 “sends the message that the United States government is not serious about combating drug crimes.” Obama was “reckless” even when he commuted sentences that Congress had decided were too long, said Sessions, who accused the president of “playing a dangerous game to advance his political ideology.”
Sessions claims “so-called ‘low-level, non-violent’ offenders…simply do not exist in the federal system.” He arrives at that conclusion by ignoring the distinction between major and minor players in drug trafficking organizations and by insisting that distribution offenses are “inherently violent,” even when they do not involve any violence.
Sessions is blind to distinctions among drug offenders and to the difference between predatory criminals and people who engage in peaceful, voluntary, but arbitrarily proscribed transactions. It is therefore not surprising that he opposes sentencing reform and expects federal prosecutors to seek the heaviest possible penalties for drug offenders, without regard to culpability or dangerousness.
For someone with that mindset, the mercy that Trump showed Johnson has got to hurt. If Trump would like to cause Sessions more pain, the CAN-DO Foundation and Families Against Mandatory Minimums have some suggestions, each one an injustice crying for correction and a potential thumb in the attorney general’s eye.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.