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AG Sessions tells gathering that violent crime rate is surging

Speaking before a law enforcement conference in Alabama recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reported that "violent crime is back with a vengeance." He reported that the nationwide murder rate increased in 2015 by nearly 11 percent, which would represent the fastest increase since 1968. "Per capita homicide rates are up in 27 of our 35 largest cities," he said.

Sessions was likely citing data from the FBI. The latest data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the official source of U.S. crime data, goes through 2015. At that time, the BJS noted that the U.S. was experiencing a historic decline in violent crime.

Despite the divergence in the two collections of statistics, Sessions was adamant. "My best judgment is that, unfortunately, this is not a blip," he said. "We must fight back before this trend can grow."

To do that, Sessions has instituted a number of controversial, tough-on-crime policies. Earlier this year, the AG directed federal prosecutors to charge defendants with the most serious charge they can prove.

"This is a return to a longstanding, common sense policy," he told his law enforcement audience. "A policy that I believe Americans would expect of our prosecutors."

He also announced a crackdown on gun crimes. Since he issued that policy, he says, there has been a 23-percent increase in prosecutions for unlawful possession of a firearm.

Sessions also lauded the president's move last week to make it easier for local police departments to obtain surplus military equipment. "This order rescinded restrictions from the last administration that limited your ability to use federal programs to get life-saving equipment like Kevlar vests and helmets and first responder and rescue equipment," he said.

The use of vests, helmets and rescue equipment by police and first responders was not particularly controversial. More controversial was the transfer of equipment such as armored vehicles and grenade launchers. The use of such equipment by local law enforcement gives many people the impression that the police perceive themselves as in a war against the citizenry.

The reason it is important for a criminal defense attorney to be thoughtful about such issues is that fear is such a powerful force. When people believe the crime rate is soaring, they become afraid and may be less protective of defendants' rights. In our system, every defendant is to be considered legally innocent until proven guilty in a court of law -- not the court of public opinion.

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