Justice News

Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks to the National Sheriffs’ Association Annual Conference
New Orleans, LA
United States
Monday, June 18, 2018

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Jonathan, for that kind introduction. And thank you for your friendship and for your leadership at the National Sheriffs’ Association. You are one of the most respected and effective leaders in Washington.

I also want to recognize Sheriff Harold Eavenson, president of NSA. It is good to see you again. Thank you for your more than 30 years in law enforcement and service to the people of Texas, as well as your support for the Department of Justice.

I should also mention Sheriff Bob Gualtieri from Florida—he is one of the Florida sheriffs who have worked out an agreement with ICE to help them deport criminal aliens out of the Sunshine State. 

I also want to thank Secretary Nielsen and Congressman Scalise for being here.

It is an honor to be with you all once again. With more than 20,000 members and 75 years of history, the National Sheriffs’ Association is one of the largest and oldest law enforcement groups in America.

Before I say anything else, I want to take a moment to remember Deputy Sheriff William Gentry who served for 13 years in the Highland County Sheriff’s Office in Florida. Last month, he gave his life in the line of duty.

His loss is a reminder that law enforcement faces danger each and every day. You put yourselves in harm’s way so that the rest of us can live in peace. You are the thin blue line between life and death, between safety and lawlessness.

This is a difficult job, but when rules are fairly and consistently enforced, life is better for all— particularly for our poor and minority communities.

Most people obey the law. They just want to live their lives. They’re not going to go out and commit violent crimes or felonies.

As my former boss, President Reagan used to say, “Most serious crimes are the work of a relatively small group of hardened criminals.”

That is just as true today as it was back then.

That’s why we’ve got to be smart and fair about how we identify criminals and who we put behind bars and for how long.

This association, Jonathan, and your leaders have studied these issues for years. Getting this issue right is extremely important. Lives are at stake.

I want to call your attention to something important. A few weeks ago, the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a new report on the recidivism rate of inmates released from state prisons in 30 states.

This is the longest-term study that BJS has ever done on recidivism and perhaps the largest. It was designed by the previous administration. The results are clear and very important. The results are of historic importance. The reality is grim indeed.

The study found that 83 percent of 60,000 state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested again within nine years. That’s five out of every six.

The study shows that two-thirds of those – a full 68 percent – were arrested within the first three years. Almost half were arrested within a year – one year – of being released.

The study estimates that the 400,000 state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested nearly 2 million times during the nine-year period – an average of five arrests each.

Virtually none of these released prisoners were arrested merely for probation or parole violations: 99 percent of those arrested during the 9-year follow-up period were arrested for something other than a probation or parole violation.

In many cases, former inmates were arrested for an offense at least as serious – if not more so – as the crime that got them in jail in the first place.

It will not surprise you that this is often true for drug offenders.

Many have thought that most drug offenders are young experimenters or persons who made a mistake. But the study shows a deeper concern.

Seventy-seven percent of all released drug offenders were arrested for a non-drug crime within nine years. Presumably, many were arrested for drug crimes also. Importantly, nearly half of those arrests were for a violent crime. We can’t give up. 

These are grim findings indeed.

Understanding the reality of crime requires clear eyes.

This study was a product of the previous administration’s methodology. Indeed, the methods of information gathering and statistical analysis have been used for years. In fact, a comparable report was released under President Obama.

This tells us that recidivism is no little matter. It is a fact of life that must be understood.

But overall, the good news is that the professionals in law enforcement know what works in crime. We’ve been studying this and working on this for 40 years.

From 1964 to 1980, the overall violent crime rate tripled. Robbery tripled. Rape tripled. Aggravated assault nearly tripled. Murder doubled.

And then, from 1991 to 2014, violent crime dropped by half. Murder dropped by half. So did aggravated assault. Rape decreased by more than a third, and robbery plummeted by nearly two-thirds.

That wasn’t a coincidence. Between that big rise in crime and that big decline in crime, President Reagan and the great Attorney General Ed Meese went to work.

There was the elimination of parole, the Speedy Trial Act, the elimination of bail on appeal, increased bail for dangerous criminals before trial, the issuing of sentencing guidelines, and in certain cases, mandatory minimum sentences.

We increased funding for the DEA, FBI, ATF, and federal prosecutors. And most states and cities followed Reagan’s lead. Professionalism and training dramatically increased in local law enforcement.

These were the biggest changes in law enforcement since the founding of this country. These laws were critical to re-establishing public safety.

When a criminal knows with certainty that he is facing hard time, he is a lot more willing to confess and cooperate with prosecutors. On the other hand, when the sentence is uncertain and up to the whims of the judge, criminals are a lot more willing to take a chance.

Many of our cases in federal court involve quite significant offenders we worked with you to apprehend.

The certainty of a significant and fixed sentence helps us get criminals to hand over their bosses, the kingpins and the cartel leaders—and helps remove entire gangs and criminals from the street. Left unaddressed these organizations only get richer, stronger, more arrogant and violent placing whole neighborhoods in fear.

Law enforcement officers understand that. Sheriff Eavenson and NSA have been critical allies in the fight to preserve mandatory minimums for a long time—and I want to thank you for your strong advocacy. Many doubt their value.

Maybe this is obvious, but a recidivist can’t hurt the community if he is incarcerated. A lot of people who would have committed crimes in the 1990s and 2000s didn’t because they were locked up. Murders were cut in half after 1980.

How many did not die or suffer because of the historic decline in crime?

Look, our goal is not to fill up the prisons. Our goal is to reduce crime and to keep every American safe. We should not as a policy keep persons in prison longer than necessary.  But clear and certain punishment does in fact make America safer.

The day I was sworn in as Attorney General, President Trump sent me a clear order. And, let me tell you, Donald Trump knows how to give a clear order. He told me to “reduce crime in America.” Not to preside over ever-increasing crime. Take action and bring down crime.

In 2015 and 2016 the overall violent crime rate went up by nearly seven percent.

Robberies went up. Assaults went up nearly 10 percent. Rape went up by nearly 11 percent. Shockingly, murder increased by more than 20 percent. All after decades of decline.

President Trump is having none of it. He said bring down crime. Make this country safe.

Improved professionalism in all areas of law enforcement and some excellent legislation were major factors in the long crime decline.

Congress helped us then and we need their help now.

One of the most important laws that President Reagan signed into law was the Armed Career Criminal Act.

That’s the law that requires a minimum 15- year sentence for felons caught with a firearm after their third robbery or burglary conviction.

These are not so-called “low-level, nonviolent drug offenders” who are being picked on. These are criminals who have committed multiple serious offenses.

In 2015—after 30 years on the books—one critical line of the law was struck down by the Supreme Court as being too vague.

But because of this impactful ruling, every federal prosecutor lost one of their most valuable tools and they ask me for help regularly.

Just one example is Jeffrey Giddings of Oregon. He had more than 20 convictions since 1991. He was let out of jail after the Court ruling and only 18 days later shot a police officer and held two fast food employees hostage. He has now been sentenced to another 30 years in prison. And the last thing he did before being put back in jail was to lash out in a tirade of profanity at police.

That officer should never have been shot. Jeffrey Giddings should have been behind bars.

More than 1,400 criminals—each convicted of three felonies—have been let out of jail in the three years since the Court ruling. And so far, more than 600 have been arrested again.

On average, these 600 criminals have been arrested three times since 2015. A majority of those who have been out of prison for two years have already been arrested again.

Here in Louisiana, nearly half of the released ACCA offenders released because of this court ruling have already been rearrested or returned to federal custody.

These numbers are staggering, but they are still likely an underrepresentation of these criminals’ illegal activity.  Any sheriff in this room will tell you that criminals rarely get caught on their first offense. We can only imagine how many innocent people have been victimized.

Releasing these hardened criminals into our communities before they serve their minimum term is not fair to crime victims. And it is not fair to law enforcement.

You and your deputies shouldn’t have to go into danger time and again to arrest the same people.

In this noble calling, all of us in this room are leaders. The NSA is fulfilling its responsibility in this regard. We must communicate sound principles to our policy leaders and to the American people when it comes to reducing crime:

  • A small number of people commit most of the crimes;
  • Those who are jailed for crimes are very likely to commit more crimes—often escalating to violent crimes—after their release; and
  • Congress and our legislatures must consider legislation that protects the public by ensuring that we incapacitate those criminals and deter others

And so the point is this: we should always be looking for effective and proven ways to reduce recidivism, but we must also recognize that simply reducing sentences without reducing recidivism unfairly creates more victims.

This Department of Justice under President Trump is committed to working with you to deliver justice for crime victims and consequences to criminals. We want to be a force multiplier for you.

The President has ordered us to back the women and men in blue and to reduce crime in America. And that’s what we intend to do. We embrace that mission and enforce the law with you.

I’d like to discuss one last thing when it comes to enforcing our laws before I leave you. There is an important conversation occurring in this country about whether we want to be a country of laws or whether we want to be a country without borders. It is one of the reasons the American people elected President Trump— to end the lawlessness at our southern border.

Importantly, some years ago, it was decided law enforcement might arrest some people who crossed the border illegally by themselves but anyone who brought a child with them would effectively be given immunity from prosecution.

Word got out about this loophole with predictable results. The number of aliens illegally crossing with children between our ports of entry went from 14,000 to 75,000—that’s a 5-fold increase—in just the last 4 years. This cannot continue.

We do not want to separate children from their parents. We do not want adults to bring children into this country unlawfully, placing them at risk.

But we do have a policy of prosecuting adults who flout our laws to come here illegally instead of waiting their turn or claiming asylum at any port of entry. We cannot and will not encourage people to bring children by giving them blanket immunity from our laws.

After the policies of the last 8 years, we had hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors coming through our borders — which has led to a resurgence of the violent MS-13 gang terrorizing high schools and even middle schools in Maryland and Long Island. Most of the children we are caring for came without adults.

In total, HHS is spending over a billion taxpayer dollars a year caring for these minors. That is an enormous cost that we bear because we sent a message to those crossing illegally to bring children and avoid prosecution and deportation. This country is dedicated to caring for children.

We have a generous, lawful system that admits over a million people a year with legal status. But when we ignore our laws at the border we obviously encourage hundreds of thousands of people a year to likewise ignore our laws and illegally enter our country, creating an enormous burden on our law enforcement, our schools, our hospitals, and social programs.

President Trump has said this cannot continue. We do not want to separate parents from their children. If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness, we won’t face these terrible choices. We will have a system where those who need to apply for asylum can do so and those who want to come to this country will apply legally. The American people are generous people who want our laws enforced. That is what we intend to do, and we ask Congress to be our partners in this effort.

Thank you again for having me here today. It is always an honor to speak to you—the front lines of our nation’s law enforcement. Because you and I know what works. We’ve reduced crime in America before; we can do it again.

And in this joint effort, you can be certain about this: we have your backs and you have our thanks.

Violent Crime
Updated June 18, 2018