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Attorney General Jeff Sessions Signals Shift At The Justice Department


Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been on the job for just three weeks, but he's already shifting the priorities of the Justice Department in some pretty big ways. With us to talk about those changes is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey there, Carrie.


CORNISH: So so far, what is different about the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions?

JOHNSON: Jeff Sessions, a former U.S. senator, is actually more accessible to reporters than his predecessors in the Obama administration, and he's got some very specific ideas about his top priority in this job. Here's Sessions talking to state attorneys general this week, talking about crime, which he worries is on the rise.


JEFF SESSIONS: I do not believe that this increase in crime is necessarily an aberration, a one-time blip. I'm afraid it represents the beginning of a trend.

JOHNSON: Now, Audie, most criminologists say crime remains near record lows, but Sessions, who came of age as a prosecutor in the 1970s, is convinced America could face a return to some very dark times unless his Justice Department gets tough on gun and drug prosecutions right away.

CORNISH: You mentioned drug prosecutions, and we know that the attorney general has talked some about marijuana, which is legal in some form in several states. What do we expect to see in the way of enforcement from his department?

JOHNSON: Well, the Obama Justice Department mostly respected state laws legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. But the Obama folks said they'd prosecute marijuana violations under federal law if there was evidence of widespread trafficking across state lines, money laundering or targeting kids.

Sessions said this week the Obama policy is under review. He said he's not a fan of marijuana, and America is definitely not a better place when more people are smoking pot. Now, the attorney general in the state of Colorado where marijuana's legal said she'd like to discuss these issues with Sessions before he makes any big changes. Stay tuned.

CORNISH: Now, another issue - civil rights. The Justice Department made two big changes just in the past week. First it rescinded guidance on how schools should treat transgender students. And then this week, it backed away from a claim of intent to discriminate in a lawsuit over the Texas voter I.D. law. Is there more to come?

JOHNSON: Yes. Keep your eyes on Chicago. Jeff Sessions was asked whether he would proceed with negotiating a court-enforceable consent decree to ensure some changes to the Chicago Police Department. He made no such commitment, said he was still deciding. When a reporter asked him about the Obama civil rights reports on unconstitutional policing in Chicago and Ferguson Missouri, this was his response.


SESSIONS: I have not read the - those reports, frankly. We had summaries of them, and some of it was pretty anecdotal and not so scientifically based.

JOHNSON: Audie, you'll remember the Obama DOJ reports were based in large part on data provided by the cities themselves. Chiraag Bains, a former Justice lawyer who investigated in Ferguson, pointed out this week on Twitter, those scathing reports included hundreds of pages of data and examples, including conclusions by career lawyers and police experts.

CORNISH: But if the Justice Department decides not to investigate problems in local police forces, how will Jeff Sessions approach law enforcement?

JOHNSON: The attorney general says he's going to give local authorities a chance to investigate and prosecute first when there are allegations of excessive force. Jeff Sessions says about 85 percent of law enforcement in this country is state and local. Those are people on the front lines fighting violent crime. And Jeff Sessions wants to support them, not oversee them.

CORNISH: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.