US prosecutors told to push for more, harsher punishments

Evrard Martin
Mai 13, 2017

"I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious offense".

For example, under federal law, possession of 100 grams of heroin or 100 kilograms of marijuana would, on a first offense, trigger a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Sessions is withdrawing a 2013 directive from Attorney General Eric Holder that instructed federal prosecutors not to specify the amount of drugs involved when charging low-level and non-violent drug offenders.

Holder's memo was an early part of this push, emphasizing that the old war on drugs had gone too far in punishing low-level offenders.

He says the policy is simply an application of sentencing laws approved by Congress.

The policy shift is meant to advance public safety and promote respect and consistency for the legal system, Sessions said Friday during public remarks, adding that it is the "the right and moral thing to do". He cited the country's opioid addiction and rising murder rates in cities such as Chicago and Memphis, Tennessee.

In a two-page memo, Sessions told Justice Department attorneys around the country that, when prosecuting a case, they should apply the most serious charge possible that can be proven in court.

"This is a disastrous move that will increase the prison population, exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and do nothing to reduce drug use or increase public safety", said Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. He says that effort in the 1970s and '80s "devastated the lives and rights of millions of Americans" and disproportionately hurt minorities.

So when most Americans learned that the incarceration rate in the United States began to decrease and that overall crime rates were at historic lows, they cheered the news. From state legislatures to the ballot box, the American people have said with a clear voice that they want commonsense reforms to sentencing and drug policies, not a return to the draconian policies that have already cost us too much.

And the Trump administration could speak to the opioid epidemic as a criminal justice issue instead of a public health crisis, encouraging policymakers to reemphasize "tough on crime" tactics for drugs.

The most "serious" crimes are determined by which offenses carry the longest sentences, according to guidelines.

The Sessions memo was largely crafted by Steven H. Cook, a federal prosecutor who was president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys and is now detailed to the Justice Department.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions' memorandum nixes a 2010 Obama administration memo, which encouraged federal prosecutors to make decisions on charging, plea agreements and sentencing recommendations.

The change undoes Obama administration policies aimed at easing prison overcrowding and showing leniency for lower-level drug offenders.

That would send more people to prison and for much longer terms by triggering mandatory minimum sentences.

But Sessions' new charging policy, outlined in a two-page memo and sent to more than 5,000 assistant USA attorneys across the country and all assistant attorneys general in Washington, orders prosecutors to "charge and purse the most serious, readily provable offense" and rescinds Holder's policy immediately.

Sessions's latest move gives some of the most powerful actors in the criminal justice even more power to impose long drug sentences.

"This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency", AG Sessions wrote in a memo sent Thursday night to US Attorneys and made public early Friday.

The move has always been expected from AG Sessions, a former federal prosecutor who cut his teeth during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic and who has promised to make combating violence and drugs the Justice Department's top priority.

The policy change takes place immediately, even though nearly all the US attorneys across the county are serving in acting roles, following the request for resignation in March of all remaining as holdovers from the Obama administration.

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