The Justice Department Just Argued Against Gay Rights in a Major Federal Case

The US Justice Department on Wednesday argued in a major federal lawsuit that a 1964 civil rights law doesn’t protect gay workers from discrimination, thereby diverging from a separate, autonomous federal agency that had supported the gay plaintiff’s case.

The Trump administration’s filing is unusual in part because the Justice Department isn’t a party in the case, and the department doesn’t typically weigh in on private employment lawsuits.

But in an amicus brief filed at the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, lawyers under Attorney General Jeff Sessions contend that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination, does not cover sexual orientation.

“The sole question here is whether, as a matter of law, Title VII reaches sexual orientation discrimination,” says the Justice Department’s brief. “It does not, as has been settled for decades. Any efforts to amend Title VII’s scope should be directed to Congress rather than the courts.”

The Justice Department also contends that Title VII only applies if men and women are treated unequally.

“The essential element of sex discrimination under Title VII is that employees of one sex must be treated worse than similarly situated employees of the other sex, and sexual orientation discrimination simply does not have that effect,” the brief says.

The case kicked off in 2010 when Donald Zarda, a skydiving instructor, filed suit against his employer in federal court in New York, alleging the company terminated him for his sexual orientation in violation of Title VII.

After a lower court ruled and the case was appealed, the 2nd Circuit invited outside parties to weigh in. Zarda v. Altitude Express is now before before a full panel of judges at the court.

Among Zarda’s boosters is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a largely autonomous federal agency that handles civil rights disputes in the workplace, which supported Zarda last month in its own court filing.

For several years, the EEOC has declared in federal court that Title VII bans anti-gay discrimination, saying it is based on sex stereotyping, and therefore discrimination on the basis of sex.

But the Justice Department argues in its latest brief, “the EEOC is not speaking for the United States and its position about the scope of Title VII is entitled to no deference beyond its power to persuade.”

The scope of Title VII has been disputed for years.

Under President Obama, the government argued Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination also included gender identity — thereby barring discrimination against transgender workers. But the Obama administration never went as far to say the civil rights law also covered sexual orientation. It had in fact opposed the argument, claiming that its hands were tied by prior court precedent. Yet in 2016, the Obama administration arguably dialed back its opposition by not trying to dismiss a case brought on those grounds.

If Zarda’s argument were to prevail — despite his death in a base-jumping accident in 2014 — it would set new precedent in the circuit by overturning two cases from the 2000s.

Further, it would give momentum to the argument as a general matter, given that in April the 7th Circuit ruled in favor of a lesbian who made the same claim.

Under Sessions, the Justice Department has pushed back against the EEOC’s view and that court decision. “The theories advanced by the EEOC and the Seventh Circuit lack merit,” the brief on Wednesday said. “These theories are inconsistent with Congress’s clear ratification of the overwhelming judicial consensus that Title VII does not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination.”

Several LGBT activists had worried the Justice Department would unleash a more sweeping claim that gender-identity discrimination isn’t covered under the Title VII as well — but the brief doesn’t explicitly speak to that issue.

Earlier on Wednesday, President Trump announced he would end all transgender military service.

“On the day that will go down in history as Anti-LGBT Day comes one more gratuitous and extraordinary attack on LGBT people’s civil rights,” said a statement from James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & HIV Project. “The Sessions-led Justice Department and the Trump administration are actively working to expose people to discrimination.”

“Fortunately, courts will decide whether the Civil Rights Act protects LGBT people, not an Attorney General and a White House that are hell-bent on playing politics with people’s lives,” he said.

[BuzzFeed]

Attorney General Jeff Sessions Speaks to ‘Hate Group’ Behind Closed Doors

Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave an off-camera speech behind closed doors on Tuesday. As announced on his public schedule, Sessions addressed a crowd at the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Summit on Religious Liberty in Orange County, California.

As the news of the scheduled speech traveled, nonprofit advocacy groups and Democrats issued statements asking why the head of the U.S. Department of Justice was speaking at a meeting of a “hate group” — a designation bestowed upon Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016.

“You can judge a person by the company they keep and tonight – Attorney General Jeff Sessions is choosing to spend his time speaking in front of one of the country’s leading anti-LGBTQ hate groups,” Democratic Party spokesperson Joel Kasnetz wrote in a statement emailed to NBC News. “Sessions’ appearance at this event, as the top law enforcement official in the country, brings into question whether the attorney general intends to protect all Americans.”

NBC News asked the Justice Department for comment on the public outcry but did not receive a response. An additional request for comment sent to Alliance Defending Freedom did not receive a reply.

ADF is essentially a powerhouse Christian law firm, defending clients like Masterpiece Cakeshop, the bakery taking its refusal to make a same-sex wedding cake all the way to the Supreme Court. But with millions in its war chest, ADF does more than just litigate: The firm wrote model legislation called the Student Physical Privacy Act that built a foundation for dozens of proposals and policies around the country that are frequently referred to as “bathroom bills.” ADF’s model legislation, and the national trend that stems from it, is aimed at keeping transgender people out of restrooms and other private facilities that correspond to their gender identity and presentation.

Founded in 1994, the Alliance Defending Freedom was a coalition effort between conservative Christian leaders aiming to preserve traditional social norms, restrict access to abortion and fight the “homosexual agenda.” Much of the firm’s early work came in the form of court briefs urging states to keep anti-gay sodomy laws on the books and in fighting attempts to legalize same-sex marriage. After Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2003, ADF issued an official statement deriding the “radical homosexual” state policy.

“Radical homosexual activists have made their intentions clear – ‘couples’ will now converge on Massachusetts, ‘marry,’ and return to their respective states and file lawsuits to challenge Defense of Marriage Acts (DOMAs) and try to force the states to recognize their ‘marriages.’ We are disappointed but we’re going to continue the fight state by state,” longtime ADF president Alan Sears wrote at the time.

The list of anti-LGBTQ remarks by ADF co-founders is long; James C. Dobson wrote an entire book about the gay “culture war” in 2004’s “Marriage Under Fire.” But after a Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage legal across America, ADF pivoted away from a now-futile fight and toward a new goal: keeping transgender people out of bathrooms.

In April, ADF attorney Kellie Fiedorek disputed the idea that the firm’s model legislation — and general motivation — is anti-LGBTQ or harmful to the rights of transgender people.

“The bills protecting privacy are simply ensuring that when it comes to intimate facilities, they are simply limiting them to biological sex. We all have a right to privacy,” Fiedorek said. “Even if you believe you are a man, a woman shouldn’t have to undress in front of you.”

In response to ADF being designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Fiedorek said the latter was “increasingly irrelevant” and “extreme,” saying ADF was the world’s “largest religious freedom legal advocacy organization.”

SPLC’s Heidi Beirich, though, told NBC News in April her organization doesn’t recklessly toss around the hate group label and had good reason to classify ADF as such a group.

“We don’t put a group on the hate list because they are against gay marriage,” Beirich said. “Where the rubber hits the road is when ADF attorneys engage in model legislation and litigation that attacks the LGBT community.”

The Attorney General’s own track record on LGBTQ issues has been cause for concern among LGBTQ advocates, too. When Sessions was confirmed in February, Lambda Legal executive director Rachel Tiven called it a “travesty,” while Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality said the confirmation marked a “deeply distressing day for civil rights.”

[NBC News]

Rex Tillerson is Intentionally Leaving the State Dept.’s Anti-Semitism Monitoring Office Unstaffed

The U.S. State Department’s office to monitor and combat anti-Semitism will be unstaffed as of July 1.

A source familiar with the office’s workings told JTA that its remaining two staffers, each working half-time or less, would be reassigned as of that date.

The Trump administration, which has yet to name an envoy to head the office, would not comment on the staffing change. At full staffing, the office employs a full-time envoy and the equivalent of three full-time staffers.

The State Department told JTA in a statement that it remained committed to combating anti-Semitism – and cited as evidence the tools, including the department’s annual reports on human rights and religious freedom, that existed before Congress mandated the creation of the envoy office in 2004.

“We want to ensure the Department is addressing anti-Semitism in the most effective and efficient method possible and will continue to endeavor to do so,” the statement said.

“The Department of State condemns attacks on Jewish communities and individuals. We consistently urge governments around the world to address and condemn anti-Semitism and work with vulnerable Jewish communities to assess and provide appropriate levels of security.

“The Department, our Embassies, and our Consulates support extensive bilateral, multilateral, and civil society outreach to Jewish communities,” the statement continued. “Additionally, the State Department continues to devote resources towards programs combating anti-Semitism online and off, as well as building NGO coalitions in Europe. We also closely monitor global anti-Semitism and report on it in our Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and International Religious Freedom Report, which document global anti-Semitism in 199 countries.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress in testimony earlier this month that he believed special envoys were counterproductive because they provided an excuse to the rest of the department to ignore the specific issue addressed by the envoy.

Congressional lawmakers from both parties have pressed the Trump administration, in letters and proposed bills, to name an envoy and to enhance the office’s status. They have noted that unlike other envoys, whose positions were created by Trump’s predecessors, the office of the envoy on anti-Semitism is a statute and requires filling.

“As the author of the amendment that created the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, I remain hopeful that these critical positions will be filled,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who authorized the 2004 law, said in a statement to JTA.

Jewish groups have lobbied President Donald Trump to name an envoy, saying that despite Tillerson’s testimony, the position has been key to encouraging diplomats and officials throughout the department to focus on anti-Semitism. Hannah Rosenthal, a special envoy on anti-Semitism in the Obama administration, instituted department-wide training on identifying anti-Semitism.

“The idea of having a dedicated envoy who can travel around the world to raise awareness on this issue is critical,” the Anti-Defamation League CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, told JTA in an interview.

“That doesn’t mean there isn’t value for all ambassadors and every embassy in addressing issues of anti-Semitism and bigotry in countries they operate,” he said. “But if the administration is truly committed” to combating anti-Semitism, “maintaining the special envoy for anti-Semitism seems like a no-brainer.”

The ADL, coincidentally, launched an online petition Thursday to the White House to fill the position.

Officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which has enjoyed a good relationship with the Trump administration, said that if the unstaffing was coming ahead of a reorganization of the office, that was understandable. But positions remain unfilled in all of the major federal departments and agencies since Trump took office.

“However, we are almost in July and there is still no one of proper rank at the State Department whom the Wiesenthal Center and others can work with to re-activate US leadership in the struggle against anti-Semitism at a time when global anti-Semitism is rising,” said an email from Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the center, and Mark Weitzman, its director of government affairs.

Jason Isaacson, the American Jewish Committee’s director of government and international affairs, said the position was essential.

“It’s not as though the need for a special envoy has diminished,” he told JTA in an interview. “If anything it has increased.”

[Jewish Telegraph Agency]

Trump Administration Quietly Rolls Back Civil Rights Efforts Across Federal Government

For decades, the Department of Justice has used court-enforced agreements to protect civil rights, successfully desegregating school systems, reforming police departments, ensuring access for the disabled and defending the religious.

Now, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the DOJ appears to be turning away from this storied tool, called consent decrees. Top officials in the DOJ civil rights division have issued verbal instructions through the ranks to seek settlements without consent decrees — which would result in no continuing court oversight.

The move is just one part of a move by the Trump administration to limit federal civil rights enforcement. Other departments have scaled back the power of their internal divisions that monitor such abuses. In a previously unreported development, the Education Department last week reversed an Obama-era reform that broadened the agency’s approach to protecting rights of students. The Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have also announced sweeping cuts to their enforcement.

“At best, this administration believes that civil rights enforcement is superfluous and can be easily cut. At worst, it really is part of a systematic agenda to roll back civil rights,” said Vanita Gupta, the former acting head of the DOJ’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama.

Consent decrees have not been abandoned entirely by the DOJ, a person with knowledge of the instructions said. Instead, there is a presumption against their use — attorneys should default to using settlements without court oversight unless there is an unavoidable reason for a consent decree. The instructions came from the civil rights division’s office of acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler and Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Gore. There is no written policy guidance.

Devin O’Malley, a spokesperson for the DOJ, declined to comment for this story.

Consent decrees can be a powerful tool, and spell out specific steps that must be taken to remedy the harm. These are agreed to by both parties and signed off on by a judge, whom the parties can appear before again if the terms are not being met. Though critics say the DOJ sometimes does not enforce consent decrees well enough, they are more powerful than settlements that aren’t overseen by a judge and have no built-in enforcement mechanism.

Such settlements have “far fewer teeth to ensure adequate enforcement,” Gupta said.

Consent decrees often require agencies or municipalities to take expensive steps toward reform. Local leaders and agency heads then can point to the binding court authority when requesting budget increases to ensure reforms. Without consent decrees, many localities or government departments would simply never make such comprehensive changes, said William Yeomans, who spent 26 years at the DOJ, mostly in the civil rights division.

“They are key to civil rights enforcement,” he said. “That’s why Sessions and his ilk don’t like them.”

Some, however, believe the Obama administration relied on consent decrees too often and sometimes took advantage of vulnerable cities unable to effectively defend themselves against a well-resourced DOJ.

“I think a recalibration would be welcome,” said Richard Epstein, a professor at New York University School of Law and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, adding that consent decrees should be used in cases where clear, systemic issues of discrimination exist.

Though it’s too early to see how widespread the effect of the changes will be, the Justice Department appears to be adhering to the directive already.

On May 30, the DOJ announced Bernards Township in New Jersey had agreed to pay $3.25 million to settle an accusation it denied zoning approval for a local Islamic group to build a mosque. Staff attorneys at the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey initially sought to resolve the case with a consent decree, according to a spokesperson for Bernards Township. But because of the DOJ’s new stance, the terms were changed after the township protested, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokesperson for the New Jersey U.S. attorney’s office declined comment.

Sessions has long been a public critic of consent decrees. As a senator, he wrote they “constitute an end run around the democratic process.” He lambasted local agencies that seek them out as a way to inflate their budgets, a “particularly offensive” use of consent decrees that took decision-making power from legislatures.

On March 31, Sessions ordered a sweeping review of all consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide to ensure they were in line with the Trump administration’s law-and-order goals. Days before, the DOJ had asked a judge to postpone a hearing on a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department that had been arranged during the last days of the Obama administration. The judge denied that request, and the consent decree has moved forward.

The DOJ has already come under fire from critics for altering its approach to voting rights cases. After nearly six years of litigation over Texas’ voter ID law — which Obama DOJ attorneys said was written to intentionally discriminate against minority voters and had such a discriminatory effect — the Trump DOJ abruptly withdrew its intent claims in late February.

[ProPublica]

Trump Pulls Back Obama-Era Protections For Women Workers

With little notice, President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order that advocates say rolls back hard-fought victories for women in the workplace.

Tuesday’s “Equal Pay Day” — which highlights the wage disparity between men and women — is the perfect time to draw more attention to the president’s action, activists say.

On March 27, Trump revoked the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order then-President Barack Obama put in place to ensure that companies with federal contracts comply with 14 labor and civil rights laws. The Fair Pay order was put in place after a 2010 Government Accountability Office investigation showed that companies with rampant violations were being awarded millions in federal contracts.

In an attempt to keep the worst violators from receiving taxpayer dollars, the Fair Pay order included two rules that impacted women workers: paycheck transparency and a ban on forced arbitration clauses for sexual harassment, sexual assault or discrimination claims.

Noreen Farrell, director of the anti-sex discrimination law firm Equal Rights Advocates, said Trump went “on the attack against workers and taxpayers.”

“We have an executive order that essentially forces women to pay to keep companies in business that discrimination against them, with their own tax dollars,” said Farrell. “It’s an outrage.”

Out of the 50 worst wage theft violators that GAO examined between 2005-2009, 60 percent had been awarded federal contracts after being penalized by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. Similar violation rates were tracked through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Labor Relations Board.

But the research did not reveal much about sexual harassment or sexual assault claims. That’s because forced arbitration clauses — also sometimes called “cover-up clauses” by critics — are commonly used to keep sex discrimination claims out of the courts and off the public record.

“Arbitrations are private proceedings with secret filings and private attorneys, and they often help hide sexual harassment claims,” said Maya Raghu, Director of Workplace Equality at the National Women’s Law Center. “It can silence victims. They may feel afraid of coming forward because they might think they are the only one, or fear retaliation.”

Mandatory arbitration clauses are increasingly used in employment contracts, said Raghu, who added that banning the process was an important step forward for victims of workplace harassment or assault.

Many learned about forced arbitration clauses for the first time just last year through the Fox News sexual harassment case. Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson dodged her own contract’s arbitration clause by directly suing former CEO Roger Ailes rather than the company. Ailes’ lawyers accused Carlson of breaching her contract, and pressed for the private arbitration to try to keep the story out of courts and the public record.

A new lawsuit filed Monday by Fox News commentator Julie Roginsky joined a growing list of accusations against Ailes, and claims Roginsky faced retaliation “because of plaintiff’s refusal to malign Gretchen Carlson and join ‘Team Roger’ when Carlson sued Ailes,” NPR reported.

By overturning the Fair Pay order, Trump made it possible for businesses with federal contracts to continue forcing sexual harassment cases like Carlson’s into secret proceedings — where the public, and other employees, may never find out about rampant sex discrimination claims at a company.

After the Fox News sexual harassment problem came to light, Carlson testified before Congress about forced arbitration — and Senators Richard Blumenthal, Dick Durbin and Al Franken wrote to major arbitration companies to ask for information on the amount of secret arbitration proceedings involving sexual harassment and discrimination.

“If Ms. Carlson had followed Mr. Ailes’s reading of her contract, her colleagues might never have learned that she was fighting back,” read the August 2016 letter. “They might never have followed her example; Roger Ailes might never have been exposed; and Fox News might never have been forced to change its behavior. Decades of alleged abuse — harassment that should disgust and astound any reasonable person — could have been allowed to continue.”

Blumenthal told NBC News that Trump’s overturning the Fair Pay order sends women’s rights in the workplace back “to a time best left to ‘Mad Men.'”

“These coverup clauses render people voiceless — forcing them to suffer in silence, suppressing justice, and allowing others to fall victim in the future,” said Blumenthal. “At a time when the fight for equal pay continues, Trump also moved to eliminate paycheck transparency and leave workers to negotiate in the dark.”

The other result of Trump’s executive order on federal contractors was lifting a mandate on paycheck transparency, or requiring employers to detail earnings, pay scales, salaries, and other details. The Fair Pay order Trump overturned was one of the few ways to ensure companies were paying women workers equally to their male colleagues.

According to the Economic Policy Institute’s 2016 analysis of federal labor statistics, the median wage for U.S. women is about 16.8 percent less than the median for men — with women making about 83 cents to a man’s dollar. According to economist Elise Gould, that’s a gap that only increases as women become more educated and climb the corporate ladder.

“At the bottom, there’s just so far down women’s wages can go. They are protected by some degree by the minimum wage,” said Gould. “But as you move up, women are not occupying places at the top the way men are. The wage gap at the top is much larger.”

Wal-Mart is one example of how the wage gap works like an inverted pyramid. According to statistical data provided in Farrell’s class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart, women in lower-paying hourly jobs at the company made $1,100 less per year than men in the same jobs. But women with salaried positions were paid $14,500 less per year than their male coworkers.

The Fair Pay order made employers submit salary details to the government that would show massive wage gaps like Wal-Mart’s. It also made employers show overtime and deductions on paychecks so workers could make sure they were being paid exactly as they were supposed to.

The original class action case against Wal-Mart was dismissed by the Supreme Court. But Farrell told NBC News that Dukes v. Wal-Mart was a victory in its own right.

“The very public nature of that case prompted many changes by Wal-Mart including its pay and equity policies,” said Farrell of the law firm Equal Rights Advocates.

“No one, including workers at Wal-Mart, would have understood the issues in that case had there been forced arbitration clauses,” Farrell added, “Which would have kept all of those claims in secret.”

For the majority of workers, especially at low-wages, there isn’t an option to work around an arbitration clause the way that Carlson did with Fox News and Ailes.

“Unless you’re suing a deep-pocketed CEO, suing an individual for sexual harassment is not going to be the same as putting the employer on the hook for liability,” said Farrell. “You usually don’t get the same damages or results.”

(h/t NBC News)

 

U.S. State Department Criticized Over Quiet Release of Human Rights Report

The U.S. State Department released its annual report on human rights around the world on Friday but the release was overshadowed by criticism that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave the report little of the traditional attention or fanfare.

Tillerson declined to unveil the report in person, breaking with precedent established during both Democratic and Republican administrations. A senior U.S. official answered reporters’ questions by phone on condition of anonymity rather than appearing on camera, also a break with precedent.

“The report speaks for itself,” the official said in response to a question about why Tillerson did not unveil it. “We’re very, very proud of it. The facts should really be the story here.”

The report, mandated by Congress, documents human rights conditions in nearly 200 countries and territories and is put together by staff in U.S. embassies. This year’s report was largely completed during former President Barack Obama’s tenure.

According to the report, Philippine police and vigilantes “killed more than 6,000 suspected drug dealers and users” since July and extrajudicial killings have “increased sharply” in the Philippines in the last year. Philippine officials say their government does not tolerate human rights violations or state-sponsored extrajudicial killings.

The report’s language on Russia remained broadly similar to that of years past, noting the country’s “authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin.”

President Donald Trump has said he would like to improve U.S. relations with Russia.

Traditionally, the secretary of state unveils the report with public comments emphasizing the centrality of human rights in U.S. foreign policy and highlighting specific findings.

Tillerson’s Democratic predecessors John Kerry and Hillary Clinton gave public comments on the report in 2013 and 2009, their first years in the post, respectively, and continued to present it throughout their tenures.

In 2005, during Republican President George W. Bush’s administration, the undersecretary of state for global affairs, Paula Dobriansky, presented the report on camera on behalf of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

So far in his one-month tenure, Tillerson has not held a news conference and has mostly refrained from answering questions from the media.

Human rights groups criticized the way the report was rolled out.

“It’s just signaling a lack of basic interest and understanding in how support for human rights reflects what’s best about America,” said Rob Berschinski, senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First.

Berschinski was deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor until Jan. 20, and helped coordinate the report.

On Friday, the U.S. official quoted from Tillerson’s confirmation hearing to offer proof that he views human rights conditions as crucial to U.S. interests, adding, “These statements are very clear about our commitment to human rights.”

In the introduction to this year’s report, Tillerson wrote “our values are our interests when it comes to human rights.”

But in his confirmation hearing, Tillerson sidestepped questions on human rights conditions in other countries, declining to condemn countries like Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, saying he wanted to see the facts first.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio on Friday said on his Facebook page he was “disappointed that the secretary of state did not personally present the latest report.”

“American leadership in defense of basic human rights, on behalf of those whose voices have been silenced, is needed now more than ever,” Rubio wrote.

(h/t Reuters)

AG Sessions Says DOJ to ‘Pull Back’ on Police Department Civil Rights Suits

Donald Trump’s attorney general said Tuesday the Justice Department will limit its use of a tactic employed aggressively under President Obama — suing police departments for violating the civil rights of minorities.

“We need, so far as we can, to help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness. And I’m afraid we’ve done some of that,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“So we’re going to try to pull back on this,” he told a meeting of the nation’s state attorneys general in Washington.

Sessions said such a move would not be “wrong or insensitive to civil rights or human rights.” Instead, he said people in poor and minority communities must feel free from the threat of violent crime, which will require more effective policing with help from the federal government.

While crime rates are half of what they were a few decades ago, recent increases in violent crimes do not appear to be “an aberration, a one-time blip. I’m afraid it represents the beginning of a trend.”

Sessions said he will encourage federal prosecutors to bring charges when crimes are committed using guns. Referring local drug violations that involve the use of a firearm, for example, to federal court can result is often a stiffer sentence than would be imposed by state courts.

“We need to return to the ideas that got us here, the ideas that reduce crime and stay on it. Maybe we got a bit overconfident when we’ve seen the crime rate decline so steadily for so long,” he said.

Under the Obama Administration, the Justice Department opened 25 investigations into police departments and sheriff’s offices and was enforcing 19 agreements at the end of 2016, resolving civil rights lawsuits filed against police departments in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, New Orleans, Cleveland and 15 other cities.

On Monday, Sessions said he is reviewing the Justice Department’s current policy toward enforcing federal law that prohibits possession of marijuana, but has made no decision about whether to get tougher.

His opposition to legalization is well known, and he emphasized it during an informal gathering of reporters . “I don’t think America will be a better place when more people, especially young people, smoke pot.”

States, he said, can pass their own laws on possession as they choose, “but it remains a violation of federal law.”

The current policy, spelled out in a 2013 memo from former deputy attorney general James Cole, said federal prosecutions would focus on distribution to minors, involvement of gangs or organized crime, sales beyond a state border, and growing marijuana plants on federal land.

(h/t NBC News)

DOJ Walks Back Guidance Discouraging Use of Private Prisons

The Department of Justice has rescinded guidance from August that discouraged the use of private prisons.

“This will restore (the Bureau of Prison’s) flexibility to manage the federal prison inmate population based on capacity needs,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

In August, then-deputy Attorney General Sally Yates directed the Bureau of Prisons to reduce its use of private prison contracts. In the August memo, she said private prisons had been used to house a prison population that had grown 800% between 1980 and 2013.

But, she said, the population is now on the decline, from 220,000 in 2013 to 195,000 in 2016.

A DOJ official said on background Thursday that the BOP has 12 private prison contracts, housing approximately 21,000 inmates.

In a new memo dated February 21 and released for the first time on Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote that the Yates memo “changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.” He directed the bureau to “return to its previous approach.”

“This will restore BOP’s flexibility to manage the federal prison inmate population based on capacity needs,” the Justice Department said in a statement Thursday.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker was quick to speak out against the change in policy.

“The Trump administration’s decision to reverse course on existing policies designed to gradually end the use of private prisons is a major setback to restoring justice to our criminal justice system,” Booker said in a statement. “The Bureau of Prisons’ own inspector general has found that privately-managed prisons housing federal inmates are less safe and less secure than federal prisons, and these facilities have seen repeated instances of civil rights violations. Attaching a profit motive to imprisonment undermines the cause of justice and fairness.”

(h/t CNN)

Reality

As The Week put it: “Private prisons ultimately pose a greater threat to inmates because of their raison d’être; they exist solely to make a profit off of incarcerated individuals.”

The private prison industry also have contributed big sums to pro-Trump groups, including the organization that raised a record $100 million for his inauguration last month.

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