Jeff Sessions Enacts Harsher Sentencing and Charges in Criminal Justice Overhaul

Associated Press, May 12, 2017

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (Credit Image: © Yuri Gripas/Reuters via ZUMA Press)

Attorney general Jeff Sessions is directing federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible against the vast majority of suspects, a reversal of Obama-era policies that is sure to send more people to prison and for much longer terms.

The move has long been expected from Sessions, a former federal prosecutor who cut his teeth at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic and who has promised to make combating violence and drugs the justice department’s top priority.

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

The move amounts to an unmistakable undoing of Obama administration criminal justice policies that aimed to ease overcrowding in federal prisons and contributed to a national rethinking of how drug criminals were prosecuted and sentenced.

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The policy memo says prosecutors should “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” – something more likely to trigger mandatory minimum sentences. Those rules limit a judge’s discretion and are typically dictated, for example, by the quantity of drugs involved in a crime.

The memo concedes there will be cases in which “good judgment” will warrant a prosecutor to veer from that rule. But any exceptions will need to be approved by top supervisors, and the reasons must be documented, allowing the justice department to track the handling of such cases by its 94 US attorney’s offices.

Even if they opt not to pursue the most serious charges, prosecutors are still required to provide judges with all the details of a case when defendants are sentenced, which could lengthen prison terms.

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The directive rescinds guidance by Sessions’ Democratic predecessor, Eric Holder, who told prosecutors they could in some cases leave drug quantities out of charging documents so as not to trigger long sentences.

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Though Holder did say that prosecutors ordinarily should charge the most serious offense, he instructed them to do an “individualized assessment” of the defendant’s conduct.

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The Obama policy shift coincided with US Sentencing Commission changes that made tens of thousands of federal drug prisoners eligible for early release, and an Obama administration clemency initiative that freed convicts deemed deserving of a second chance.

Combined, those changes led to a steep decline in a federal prison population that now stands at just under 190,000, down from nearly 220,000 in 2013.

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