- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2017

Civil rights groups, marijuana legalization supporters, and advocates for separation of church and state have fired off blistering critiques of Sen. Jeff Sessions in hopes of derailing his nomination as attorney general.

But among those steadfastly defending the Republican lawmaker are victims’ advocates, who say Mr. Sessions has repeatedly ensured crime victims are treated fairly and with dignity in the criminal justice system and that he has backed critical funding for programs benefiting them.

“I think Sen. Sessions has always been a very strong voice for victims in that process,” said Paul Cassell, a former federal judge and law professor who has advocated for a constitutional amendment to protect crime victims’ rights.

A former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama and subsequently the state’s elected attorney general, Mr. Sessions is often described as an old-school law-and-order prosecutor — a characterization that seems to explain his moves to ensure sentencing is fair and that criminals pay for their crimes.

Noting Mr. Sessions’ opposition last year to criminal justice reform efforts focused on cutting the prison sentences of incarcerated drug offenders, Mr. Cassell said the Alabaman has demonstrated during his 20 years in the Senate that he understands a reduction in a prison sentence can have real consequences for a victim.

“I think Sen. Sessions has had a very clear-headed view of those trade-offs,” Mr. Cassell said. “He has been willing to look at scaling back some of the extreme mandatory minimum sentences, but I think he’s been widely cautious about those changes.”

But Mr. Sessions’ record is set to come under fire Tuesday at the start of a two-day confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The NAACP and other civil rights groups have accused Mr. Sessions of racism, pointing to comments that torpedoed his 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship before the Senate committee. An early Donald Trump supporter, Mr. Sessions has appeared supportive of such Trump proposals as a temporary ban on Muslim immigration and stepped-up deportation of those in the country illegally.

But among those for whom Mr. Sessions’ stance has resonated are groups advocating on behalf of crime victims — at least five of which submitted letters of support for Mr. Sessions to the judiciary committee ahead of the hearings.

The Mobile, Alabama-based Victims of Crime and Leniency praised Mr. Sessions’ support of programs and initiatives for crime victims established by the Victims of Crime Act and Violence Against Women Act.

“Sometimes we get people in those higher positions, and they don’t think about what victims have to go through,” said the group’s state director, Janette Grantham, who watched the man who killed her brother spend 32 years on death row before a judge reduced his sentence to life in prison.

“We don’t want any more rights than the perpetrator. We just want equal rights,” Ms. Grantham said of the need for protection and resources for victims. “We need someone who has knowledge of that. I really truly believe that Jeff Sessions, with the background that he has, as attorney general and an attorney, that he will be the right one.”

Although Mr. Sessions has advocated for legislation to reduce the disparate punishments doled out for crack and powder cocaine possession — including co-sponsoring 2010s Fair Sentencing Act — he is more recently known for leading the opposition to efforts aimed at reducing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

“While he has in the past been supportive of some types of reform, more recently he has led the opposition to any type of criminal justice reform — even minor criminal justice reform,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office. “He has made a point of not believing that there are a large number of nonviolent offenders and taking a line that all drug offenders are inherently violent.”

He has also repeatedly opposed retroactive applicability of any changes in sentencing law, Ms. McCurdy said, calling the issue “a big sticking point for him.”

Many high-ranking Republicans have spoken out in support of Mr. Sessions. With the party’s 52-48 edge in the Senate, Mr. Sessions’ nomination is expected to be approved.

“As attorney general, Jeff Sessions will be an advocate for victims’ rights and lead a Justice Department that stands with law enforcement once again, which is why you see so many of these organizations supporting his confirmation,” said Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores.

The national Fraternal Order of Police and other law enforcement groups have praised the nomination of Mr. Sessions, saying his support of a host of bills aimed at improving officer safety has inspired confidence that he supports police.

“Jeff Sessions is a man who can reach across the aisle to get things done for the rank-and-file officer as well as a man who will support those same officers, even when it is unpopular to do so,” said FOP President Chuck Canterbury, who will testify at Mr. Sessions’ hearing.

The senator’s support of police has left criminal justice reformers concerned that he could dismantle gains made under the Obama administration in enhancing oversight of local police departments.

“While Sen. Sessions has not spoken specifically about federal supervision of police departments, he has criticized ‘interference’ with police and federal oversight generally,” Ames Grawert wrote in an analysis of Mr. Sessions’ record for the Brennan Center for Justice.

Mr. Sessions has also taken the side of law enforcement in pushing for harsher penalties for those who seek to harm law enforcement officers — sponsoring legislation to make the murder or attempted murder of a law enforcement officer or first responder an aggravating factor for juries considering the death penalty for a defendant.

For victims’ advocacy groups, Mr. Sessions commitment to seeking just punishment for violent criminals — regardless of who is harmed — serves as a promise that he will not take action to change the criminal justice system without first considering all sides of the matter.

“Sen. Sessions understands that a core responsibility of the government is safety of the public,” Verna Wyatt, a victim advocate and co-founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims, wrote in a letter to the Judiciary Committee. “He has said the wise approach is to slow down and evaluate the trends before accelerating prison population decline. He knows that releasing offenders who are not accountable or rehabilitated only creates new victims.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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