AG Sessions meets with Memphis leaders, discusses crime

Protesters to AG Sessions: Crime plan is 'counterproductive'
Published: May. 25, 2017 at 9:50 AM CDT|Updated: May. 25, 2017 at 10:33 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Memphis on Thursday morning.

He spoke with local law enforcement as well as Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to discuss ways to reduce crime in the city and around the country.

The visit comes two weeks after Sessions called out Memphis in a speech about crime. That was done as part of his call for tougher sentencing of criminals.

Sessions took the podium Thursday to discuss those plans. He was introduced by Congressman David Kustoff (R-TN).

Kustoff applauded Sessions for a long and impressive career and welcomed him to Tennessee. Kustoff stands behind Sessions' plans for stiffer crime punishments.

"Our focus should be on enforcing the laws that are on the books," Kustoff said.

"Focusing on violent crime, especially at this point in history, is important." Sessions said.

Sessions said tough sentencing helped reduce crime for decades, but over the last few years violent crime is back on the rise.

"We've had three consecutive years of increases...I don't think the increase is just a blip," Sessions said. "We must act to reverse this surge in violent crime and keep our country and every single community safe. Under President Trump's direction, this Department of Justice is committed to doing its part."

Sessions directed federal prosecutors to use every lawful tool to take the most violent offenders off the streets.

"There are not that many people capable of murdering another human being," Sessions said. "The more of them we prosecute, convict, and put in prison, the fewer murders we will have."

Sessions also said the more drugs we have on the streets, the more crime our communities will see. Therefore, he touted his decision to establish new charging and sentencing policies when it comes to drug offenders.

"We know that drugs and crime go hand-in-hand. Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can't file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun," Sessions said. "Unfortunately, even as violent crime has surged and overdose deaths have spiked, federal gun and drug prosecutions have fallen recent years. We will reverse that trend. This new charging and sentencing policy is a return to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress—plain and simple."

Sessions said his decision to prosecute drug offenders is not designed to target low-level offenders or recreational drug users. He said his sentencing focuses on criminals arrested with large doses of drugs.

"These are criminals arrested with a kilogram of heroin—that is 10,000 doses—or five kilograms of cocaine, or 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. That's what it takes to get these tough sentences. Not a few ounces--give me a break!"

Sessions also took a hard line against gangs and gang members.

"If you are a gang member, know this: You think you are targeting us. Well, we are targeting you. We will find you. We will devastate your networks. We will starve your revenue sources, deplete your ranks and seize your profits. We will not concede a single block or street corner to you," Sessions said.

Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich said Sessions is asking prosecutors to use discretion in sentencing to help lower crime.

"Go after the worst of the worst and follow the law," Weirich said. "What can we do to keep these people from ever crossing into the criminal justice system?"

"U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to take our country in a counterproductive direction," NAACP President Deidre Malone said.

Sessions' crime plan is opposed by civil rights organizations. Both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter movement protested against the Attorney General's visit Thursday morning.

"Jeff Sessions' approach to criminal justice is in opposition to our human rights and criminalizes the most marginalized groups," Lauren Williams Batiste, BLM chapter member, said.

Protesters gathered in Downtown Memphis to protest Sessions' visit. They said they are concerned about Sessions' plan to roll back progressive crime fighting plans that gave judges more freedom in sentencing jail time. Sessions wants to bring back mandatory minimums, which would result in more people in jail for longer periods.

Protesters said they oppose mass incarceration.

"As a black female American, I will continue to resist the mass incarceration of my black and brown brothers and sisters," protester Tami Sawyer said.

Others said the plan is an attempt to go back to the 1950s.

"He's trying to turn back the times when it comes to mass incarceration, specifically of African-Americans," Memphis NAACP branch president Deidre Malone said. "We're not going back to 50 years of Jim Crow. The more pressure we put on our elected officials to stand with us on this issue, the greater chance we have to abolish mandatory minimums."

"One-third of black boys will enter into a prison from their homes in Memphis before they reach the age 18," activist Tami Sawyer said while explaining why she thought mandatory minimums would devastate Memphis.

Pastor Earle Fisher took the podium to speak against Sessions' campaign, saying actions speak louder than words.

"We know the difference between diplomacy and complicity," he said. "We know the difference between diplomacy and collusion."

Fisher is concerned about the administration's plans to increase sentencing and had his own ideas about what the meeting should hold.

"Unless the relationship between the attorney general is about the relationship between crime and poverty, unless the topic is the need for access to livable wages and equitable education, unless they are about to discuss the advancement of the federal review of the Memphis Police Department, and unless the administration has a plan to present to the general public, something that is about something more than just federal funding for increased police presence, and the continued criminalization of black and brown bodies for profit—if none of that is the case, I think this meeting is a sham."

Fisher said unless those conditions are met, the meeting is, "nothing more than a smokescreen of the status quo."

"If these other things are not part of the conversation, I'm afraid this meeting amounts to nothing more than a political policy lynch mob, and mass incarceration is the noose," he added.

Fisher said the protesters gathered to resist a city that he said is hell-bent on becoming a police state.

Despite the number of protesters that gathered, there were some supports of Jeff Sessions who came out.

"There are millions of us and I appreciate General Sessions," Dwight Hargrove, Sessions supporter, said.

Mayor Strickland said he and other city leaders used their time with Sessions to explain the challenges the Bluff City faces.

Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen has also expressed concern on Sessions' stance on sentencing.

"Certainly his proposal to increase sentencing on the federal side is not the right answer," Cohen said. "That's an anachronistic throwback to the 50s and 60s that cost us lots of money and left a lot of people, family members of folks in jail for a long time for no purpose."

Cohen spoke to House members after listening to Cohen's speech, saying he felt like he was listening to "something out of the 50s." Watch his speech below:

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