Nostalgia is something we all engage in at some point. In fact, reliving the “good ol’ days” is a pastime in itself. Remembering and retelling past accomplishments — often with some embellishment or exaggeration — and recalling days gone by generally leads to a sentimentality that leaves us framing the past in a simplicity that never existed.
There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia and remembering and appreciating the past. However, it can become a problem when we fail to understand things in the past weren’t always perfect. It can become a problem when we fail to see progress and change aren’t bad things.
Nostalgia becomes a problem when we fail to realize “going back to the way things used to be” usually doesn’t equate with going back to a condition or time that was better. Whether it’s an individual, a business, a sports team or a society, you never forget your history, your foundation — but you should always be growing, maturing, innovating and moving forward. It’s the key to success.
Having the correct mindset about the past is definitely important for a political leader. A community or society can be greatly helped by a political leader willing to embrace positive change. Conversely, it can be hurt or hindered by one that refuses to.
Since becoming U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions has passionately spoken about the need to embrace policies from the past to protect us in the present and carry us into the future. Whether it’s been on the subject of marijuana use, criminal justice reform or measures regarding police and community relations, he has indicated the way forward is through looking back.
As of this year, 26 states along with the District of Columbia have laws legalizing marijuana use in some fashion. Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota will join that number after recently passing ballot measures permitting the use of medical marijuana. Some states have also decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
As voters went to the polls last November to vote on various marijuana measures up for consideration in different states, national polls recorded the highest support for marijuana legalization in the 47-year history of such polling. Sixty percent of Americans, representing a cross-section of all age groups, now support changes in the laws on this issue.
Sessions, however, has taken a hard stance against this movement. He even declared medical marijuana’s efficacy has been “hyped.” This remark drew the ire of Amy Young, whose young daughter, Leni, was the impetus for an Alabama law passed last year allowing for the use of cannabidiol (a cannabis compound that has significant medical benefits but does not make people feel “stoned”). Regarding Sessions’ statement, Young noted, “Sessions goes on to talk about maybe his view being “unfashionable” … What’s unfashionable is putting ignorance in front of people’s quality of life and their lives itself.”
A desire to return to policies of the past is not present on just this issue. America’s “War on Drugs” and its devastating effects have in recent years brought together some unlikely allies. Many conservative and liberal groups as well as politicians have come to acknowledge the need for criminal justice reform in light of “get tough” policies practiced for decades that have wreaked havoc on poor communities across the nation and decimated state budgets.
Such things as draconian measures exacting extremely long sentences on nonviolent offenders, sentencing disparities between powdered and crack cocaine, no treatment for those with substance abuse issues and little to no assistance with reintegration into society created a nightmare scenario. Prison populations exploded and many offenders, when released, are doomed to be back in the system.
Reforms spearheaded by bipartisan participation at the state and national levels are being pursued, but unfortunately our new Attorney General hasn’t expressed a high level of enthusiasm for them.
The national crime strategy pursued in the ‘80s and ‘90s when the War on Drugs was at its height, however, is a policy for which Sessions has shown an affinity. Even before taking office as attorney general, while serving in the U.S. Senate he personally led an effort in 2015 and 2016 to block the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
This bipartisan bill — advanced by leaders such as Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), along with conservatives such as the Koch brothers and law enforcement organizations such as the Major Cities Chiefs and National District Attorneys Associations — was heralded as a united and needed effort to reduce the penalties for some nonviolent drug crimes while retaining tough penalties for violent ones. In large part, then-Sen. Sessions was responsible for the bill being torpedoed.
As an analysis for the Brennan Center for Justice noted, “Sen. Sessions appears to subscribe to outdated ideas about criminal justice policy that conservatives, progressives and law enforcement have come to agree do not help reduce crime and unnecessarily increase the prison population. His views place him at odds with top Republicans and the current cross-partisan movement to reform the justice system.”
Additionally, as police departments around the country have moved toward proactive reforms to improve relationships between law enforcement and the community, understanding law enforcement works best and is most effective when a reciprocal relationship of trust and respect is established, Attorney General Sessions has not communicated a similar view.
There are few endeavors in which doing things as they were done 30, 20 or even 10 years ago is the recipe for success. The realm of public policy is no exception.