U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions lauded law enforcement officers, chided their critics and announced a $3.4 billion federal grant for local victims assistance programs Thursday during a stop in Macon.
The money comes from the Office for Victims of Crime that collects federal criminal fines, fees and special assessments and contains no tax dollars, according to a Justice Department news release.
More than $100 million will be coming to Georgia, Sessions said.
The nation’s 84th attorney general pledged to help crime victims “walk the long and difficult road to recovery,” noting survivors of crime are some of the “strongest and most inspiring people” he has met in his nearly 40-year career “in or around law enforcement.”
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At the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia in Gateway Plaza on Mulberry Street, Sessions spent about 30 minutes at the microphone but did not take questions.
His speech in front of about 50 invited guests praised the efforts of federal prosecutors and police while decrying “slanderous attacks” maligning law enforcement.
Sessions cited comments made this week by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who called the criminal justice system “racist” from “front to back.”
Those attacks make it difficult to hire and retain good officers, Sessions said.
He also blasted a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that he said has allowed violent criminals back on the street.
Up until three years ago, the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 mandated more severe punishment for convicted felons in possession of a firearm if they had three of more “violent felony” convictions.
Justices ruled the legal definition of “violent felony” was too vague, which reduced mandatory sentences and allowed early releases that were “devastating for crime enforcement,” Sessions said.
“We’ve got a real problem here,” Sessions said as more than a dozen members of the media lined the back of the room.
Of the 16 felons released from Georgia prisons, six already have re-offended, he said.
Sessions favors a new push by Republican U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Orrin Hatch of Utah to reaffirm the Armed Career Criminal Act and toughen sentences.
Sessions also said more must be done to reduce the recidivism rate of people returning to prison after they have served their time.
“You simply can’t have a revolving door as was the case when I was first appointed a U.S. attorney by Ronald Reagan,” Sessions said.
Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills listened intently. He has been a vocal critic of Georgia criminal justice reforms that have reduced sentences.
Sills said he was impressed by Sessions’ remarks.
“That same attitude needs to be in Atlanta with the state offenders here that we’re dealing with,” Sills said. “We need help on the local level.”
Sessions said President Donald Trump, a “law and order president,” gave him two directives on his first day on the job: “reduce crime in America and back the blue.”
The former U.S. senator from Alabama said he writes personal condolences letters to the family of every officer who dies in the line of duty.
“We see the pendulum swing back and forth on the national media, and public opinion tends to follow the latest story of the day,” said Scott, who was looking forward to talking to Sessions about challenges he sees.
At the podium, Sessions also criticized politicians’ claims that there is too much attention paid to low-level, non-violent drug offenders.
“We aren’t prosecuting low-level drug possessions in federal court,” Sessions said. “Project Safe Neighborhood focuses on the alpha criminal, the person everyone is scared of.”
Sessions did not specifically address Macon’s spike in homicides, which was a record-setting pace for violent deaths in the first five months in the community of about 150,000 people.
Since Jan. 1, 22 homicides occurred in Bibb County, Coroner Leon Jones said.
Two weeks ago, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Charlie Peeler invited Sessions to visit the local office.
Peeler thanked Sessions for allocating money in June to enhance the Project Safe Neighborhood initiative to target violent crime.
New funds are allowing for 311 new assistant U.S. attorneys with nearly 200 of them focusing on violent crime cross the country, Peeler said.
Sessions “means what he says, and when he says he’s going to do something, he does it,” Peeler said.
Bibb County Sheriff David Davis, on his way to the meeting, stopped to speak to and show support for about 30 protestors rallying against Sessions’ visit, immigration policies of the Trump administration and the new Religious Liberties Task Force.
Davis, a Democrat, said Justice Department contributions help local officers combat crime.
“The Justice Department has been very helpful to us in fighting crime by contributing well over a half-million dollars in grants over the last three years,” Davis said.
Sessions also spent a few hours meeting privately with Middle Georgia law enforcement officers and prosecutors before leaving town.
A Macon goodie bag overflowing with cherry blossoms and a University of Georgia hat were waiting for Sessions when he arrived.
As he reached the podium, he said: “I know a lot of people from Macon, and all of them are wonderful, so Macon must be one of the great places on earth.”