U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a warning Thursday to gang members in Tennessee and around the country, saying their criminal networks will be devastated as police and prosecutors take a stronger stance on fighting violent crime.
Sessions’ tough talk came as he spoke before more than 90 local, state and federal prosecutors and law enforcement officers in Memphis, a city beset by gang activity, drug crime and gun violence.
Promoting the Justice Department’s efforts to bring the most serious possible charges against most suspects, including drug traffickers and those who use guns to commit crimes, Sessions told the Tennessee officials that “we have your back.”
Sessions has contended that a spike in violence in some big cities and the nation’s opioid epidemic show the need for a return to tougher tactics compared with the Obama administration. Critics have warned the shift would crowd prisons and strain law enforcement resources. The move also has been assailed as a return to failed drug-war policies that unfairly affected minorities and loaded prisons with nonviolent offenders.
One of the poorest big U.S. cities, Memphis saw a record 228 homicides last year. Police say there have been 84 homicides this year, compared with 91 at this time last year.
Statistics show the overall crime rate in Memphis through the first four months of this year is 7 percent higher than during the same period in 2016. But the overall crime rate in the city is down 18 percent since 2006, according to the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.
Still, violent crime seizes headlines every day in Memphis. Residents expressed outrage after three people were shot this week during a vigil for a pregnant 18-year-old who was fatally shot last year.
State and federal law enforcement has targeted gangs in Memphis for years, prosecuting members of groups such as the Gangster Disciples. Courts have closed businesses suspected of gang and drug activity.
But Memphis police officials say they need more officers. As of Thursday, 1,941 officers were active in the Memphis Police Department, down from a high of 2,452 in 2011, officials said. Sessions mentioned this decline in his speech, attended by Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings and Amy Weirich, the city’s top prosecutor.
“If you are a gang member, know this: You think you’re targeting us, well we’re targeting you,” Session said. “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.”
Sessions said there’s been too much talk about legalizing drugs and not enough discussion about prevention. He also said long sentences are necessary for people who traffic large amounts of drugs.
“People don’t want to believe that we have to have prisons. I wish it weren’t so, I really do,” Sessions said. Later, he added: “We’ve got to be realistic. Imprisonment unfortunately is a part of what is needed to have safety in our streets.”
Advocates point to a crowded Shelby County Jail and say that more police and more people in prison is a bad idea. Instead, officials should be looking at reducing poverty and creating more jobs to prevent crimes such as armed robbery and murder.
Meanwhile, statistics show that more than 80 percent of inmates in Shelby County Jail are African-American, with many of those being drug addicts and low-level dealers with no history of violence, said Josh Spickler, a former Shelby County public defender. About 63 percent of Memphis’ residents are black, according to the U.S. Census.
“A lot of criminal justice reform is simply the application of logic and common sense. Almost all of Sessions’ policies run completely counter to this,” said Spickler, executive director of Just City, a criminal justice reform organization in Memphis. “We must also note that the real costs of these outdated policies and proven failures will not be borne by the Department of Justice — they will fall entirely on the backs of Memphis and Shelby County taxpayers.”
About two dozen people protested outside. They held signs criticizing Sessions’ civil, rights record and chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Jeff Sessions has got to go.”