Jeff Sessions’ career as Attorney General started exactly with what you would expect from him: a revocation of the Obama Administration’s commitment to end reliance on private prisons for domestic inmates and the promise to ramp up marijuana enforcement. Both of these are examples of this government’s effort to find the most reasonable, fiscally responsible, and decent thing that should be done and then do the exact opposite.
We know that private prisons in the federal system are not big players in the overall incarceration picture. The Obama Administration’s declaration that they would cease to rely on them seemed more a symbolic move than something that would actually make a difference (not that they could intervene in state incarceration matters anyway.) Moreover, throughout that period, private facilities were still used (and are still used) for incarceration of immigrants before deportation, and there was never any talk of stopping that practice.
We also hear the federal government arguing for a dinosaur-era approach to marijuana, featuring a new lie: that marijuana usage is related to opioid overdosing, which is unsupported by research and harkens back to the dark days of the Anslinger war on drugs in the 1920s.
These developments make Mona Lynch‘s new book, Hard Bargains, remarkably timely. In the book, Lynch conducts a careful and perceptive ethnography of three federal district courts: one in the Northeast, one in the Southeast, and one in the Southwest. Lynch is well aware that federal prosecutions are not the driving force behind mass incarceration, but she uses federal drug enforcement as an interesting laboratory for the study of prosecutorial discretion.
Indeed, the main takeaway from the book is the unhealthy combination of two seemingly contradictory factors: the existence of tough sentencing laws, which presumably bind discretion (albeit less so since 2005), and the existence of broad prosecutorial discretion, which allows them full use of these draconian sentencing provisions. On the back cover, Kate Stith, whose excellent book with Jose Cabranes Fear of Judging was a well-informed and passionate cry against sentencing guidelines, interprets Lynch’s analysis as pointing to lack of discretion. I think the lack of discretion is only half of the problem. With the advent of extreme sentencing laws, how they are deployed is up to individual prosecutorial ideology, and as an outcome, a different culture of federal sentencing develops in the three different districts.
Not that any of these is particularly appetizing. Lynch’s account of the Northeast depicts a court that is captive in the hands of a zealous prosecutor on a mission to “rescue” people from themselves and from the streets, who basically wrangles minor drug cases out of the states’ hands and pushes them into the federal system, sometimes in violation of the Petite policy of refraining from double prosecution. In his enthusiasm to end the drug epidemic, he imposes lengthy and unreasonable restrictions on their freedom, which the court almost invariably approves. In the Southeast, there isn’t even a pretense of rehabilitation: an elderly judge delivers moralizing lectures to defendants on the receiving end of obscene, decades-long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. And in the Southwest, marijuana backpackers–poor, undocumented immigrants carrying marijuana by foot as payment to their coyotes–are rounded up, summarily shifted to “flip flop court” for misdemeanor charges, where they are made to plead guilty in batches and march off to detention before deportation.
It’s difficult to figure out which of the three models is the most horrible. The variations confirm, though, that when outrageous mandatory minimums, unreasonable calculations of criminal histories, and breathtaking arbitrariness in terms of offense categories, come together, the problem is not, or at least not exclusively, lack of discretion. The problem is that a dazzling array of options, including very frightening and oppressive ones, is on the table, and prosecutors get to pick and choose which of these to deploy.
The extent of prosecutorial power here cannot be underrated. The publication of Hard Bargains coincides with the publication of John Pfaff’s Locked In, which looks at the unfettered discretion and power of county prosecutors (and which I’ll review in a future post). Lynch and Pfaff’s analyses are complementary.
As in her previous book Sunbelt Justice, Lynch is not only a meticulous and perceptive observer but also a master storyteller. The defendants, prosecutors, and judges come to life in her vignettes from court cases she witnessed. Her description of the poor, disenfranchised immigrants forced to plead guilty in batches is particularly disheartening (my students were in tears when I read this section aloud in class yesterday.) Lynch has a keen psychologist’s eye for personalities and motivations, and she realistically captures the ideologies and worldviews that make her characters tick.
It is horrifying to think of how this system, already bloated, draconian, and rotten in the Obama years, could wreak more havoc and destruction in Trumpistan, and the news from the last two days suggest at least two directions in which things could get even worse: reintroducing the profit mechanisms that drove private incarceration by improving these companies’ relationship with the feds, and inflicting the awful drug sentencing scheme on marijuana defendants to an even greater extent (with the obvious potential victims being the people at the bottom of the Trumpistani social ladder: poor immigrants from Mexico.) I dread to think that the horrors and inhumanities described by Lynch could be something we might come to miss in the years to come.