Attorney General Jeff Sessions
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Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo this week ordering federal prosecutors to pursue “the most serious, readily provable” offense against those suspected of crimes, a reversal of course from the Obama administration which sought to change how some nonviolent drug offenders were prosecuted.
“By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences,” Sessions' memo reads.
The directive did not come as a surprise, as the Trump administration has indicated for weeks that such an order was imminent. Even still, the policy change received a harsh reaction from several former prosecutors on Friday, who called it a potentially dangerous return to the failed “War on Drugs” and era of mass incarceration.
“The policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement Friday, calling Sessions' decision “unwise” and “ill-informed.”
Joyce Vance, former US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, put out a series of tweets Friday saying, “[the] DOJ returned to a charging and sentencing policy known as tough on crime today. It means charging to get the longest sentence in most cases.”
“This approach leads to bloated prisons at enormous cost. Prisoners are warehoused [without] rehabilitation opportunities,” Vance tweeted.
“The memo is truly a throwback to failed drug war policy and to an era of mass incarceration that has devastated communities of color,” former head of the DOJ civil rights division Vanita Gupta told BuzzFeed News. “It just seems like the AG is out of touch with folks in his own party who have been pushing for the reform of our criminal justice laws.”
After leaving DOJ earlier this year, Gupta joined the The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Wayne Henderson, CEO at the coalition, said, “Attorney General Sessions seems to have missed the memo that the War on Drugs is over.”
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Indeed, criminal justice reform aimed at lowering the prison population — the US maintains 25% of the world’s incarcerated people, while having only 5% of the world's population — has received bipartisan report with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress pushing for new legislation.
Republican Senator Rand Paul put out a statement Friday saying that the Trump administration's new policy will “accentuate” injustices.
“Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long,” Paul said. “Attorney General Sessions’ new policy will accentuate that injustice. Instead, we should treat our nation’s drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ problem.”
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said, “this policy shift flies in the face of the growing bipartisan consensus” on the need for criminal justice reform.
“It’s no coincidence that the Sessions memo was quietly signed on the same day the President was making major headlines for firing FBI Director Comey because of his investigation of Trump—this policy is unjust and unwise and can’t withstand even minimal public scrutiny,” Durbin said.
On Friday, Mark Holden, Chairman of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, which is funded by the Koch brothers, reacted to the Sessions memo saying, “We favor a different approach which requires changing some of the existing federal laws.”
“Fortunately, there are already federal reform bills from last year that have broad bipartisan support that will address this issue,” Holden said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News. “These reforms are consistent with those enacted by many states the past 10 years. The states have proven that communities and law enforcement are safer when the punishment fits the crime through sentencing reforms.”
Sessions’ directive to push mandatory minimums and tougher sentencing does stand in contrast with many criminal justice reforms taking place on the state level. According to Pew’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, since 2007 at least 23 states have reformed sentencing laws for crimes related to low-level drug offenses and other offenses that carry potential mandatory minimums.
Gupta said she is optimistic that “momentum” on the state and local level will continue “despite what Sessions is telling the federal prosecutors.”
Still, she said, “it is hard to ignore the bully pulpit that Sessions has.”
“The movement for criminal justice reform will continue to propel forward, but it becomes harder in the face of a DOJ that is engaged in retrenchment,” Gupta said.