Why Barney Fife's Gun Had No Bullets

Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife often had decidedly different perspectives and methods on how best to grapple with the criminal elements in Mayberry. These disparities were never more obvious than in how they each dealt with Otis, the town drunk. Andy always leaned toward tolerance, while Barney was more draconian. To keep Barney from going too far off track fighting crime, Andy gave him one bullet and made him keep it in his pocket. Sometimes 1960s sit-coms repeat themselves in real life 50 years later.

On May 11th, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed Obama administration efforts to ease penalties for some non-violent federal drug offenders. Sessions thinks there is a clear connection between drug crimes and a broader range of crimes and that federal prosecutors need to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences. He apparently thinks that locking up drug offenders for as long as possible, even those with non-violent histories and first time offenders, is good public policy. While this is correctly "unwise and ill-informed" according to former Attorney General Eric Holder, Sessions has a point. Congress passed these harsh laws and has failed to change them.

The Obama administration in an effort to "do the right thing" tried to "work around" the law with Justice Department directives to prosecutors to use their discretion and sometimes "go easy" on some drug offenders, when appropriate. Hindsight tells us that it would have been better for them to work with Congress to change these laws. If we've learned anything from the last 8 years and the last 3 months, it's that the he who lives by Executive Order dies by Executive Order.

Only a stone cold idiot or someone heavily influenced by the private prison industry would think that we can incarcerate our way out of the drug problem in this country. I doubt if Jeff Sessions is an idiot. Unfortunately, he has the law on his side. The real problem is that Congress has failed to act, even as there appears to be broad bi-partisan support for criminal justice reform. Until that happens, our country's criminal justice system is going to be managed by executive branch whims and by lobbyists.