U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to seek the most serious charges possible against suspected offenders, a reversal of President Barack Obama’s policies that could result in more convictions and much longer prison terms.
In a memo to the country’s prosecutors Thursday, Sessions wrote “This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency.”
War on drugs
At an opioid abuse event in West Virginia Thursday, Sessions said the order was needed to combat an increase in violence in some large cities and the nation’s opioid epidemic. “The opioid and heroin epidemic is a contributor to the recent surge of violent crime in America,” Sessions said.
The order has been expected from Sessions, a former prosecutor during the height of the U.S. crack cocaine epidemic, who vowed that combating violence and illegal drugs would be the Justice Department’s top priority.
Some supporters of Obama-era policies, which eased federal prison overcrowding and contributed to a national reassessment of how drug criminals, were prosecuted and sentenced, said Sessions’ order will revive the worst aspects of the government’s drug war.
“It looks like we’re going to fill the prisons back up after finally getting the federal prison population down,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “The social and human costs will be much higher,” he added.
Sessions’ directive counters a national trend to eliminate some of the most severe sentencing policies adopted during the 1980s era war on drugs. Many experts have maintained those laws resulted in offenders receiving very lengthy prison sentences when shorter terms would have been sufficient.
“The Justice Department’s expected shift to prosecuting and incarcerating more offenders, including low level drug offenders, is an ineffective way to protect public safety,” Brett Tolman, a U.S. Attorney under President George W. Bush, said in a statement in response to the order.
“Decades of experience shows we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of America’s drug problem,” he said. “Instead, we must direct resources to treatment and to specifically combating violent crime. This will help law enforcement do our jobs better.”
Session’s policy memo directs prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious readily provable offense.” The memo acknowledges there will be cases in which “good judgment” will permit a prosecutor to bend that rule. But exceptions would require approval from top supervisors.
The directive abolishes guidance by Session’s Democratic predecessor, Eric Holder, who said prosecutors could in some cases omit drug quantities from charging documents so as to not generate long sentences. Holder’s 2013 policy initiative was aimed at encouraging shorter sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, thus freeing up more resources to pursue more serious and violent criminals.
The Obama administration policy shift coincided with its clemency initiative that released convicts considered worthy of a second chance and U.S. Sentencing Commission changes that made tens of thousands of federal drug inmates eligible for early release. Together, those changes led to a sharp drop in the federal prison population, from 220,000 in 2013 to the current level of 190,000.
Nevertheless, some prosecutors felt constrained by Holder’s 2013 directive and were concerned they would lose the ability to plea bargain without the latitude to pursue harsher punishments.