A Justice Department memo by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released Friday announced that Obama-era criminal sentencing policy reforms have been reversed, instructing federal prosecutors to seek charges against defendants which carry the “most substantial” punishment.
Specifically, Sessions ordered the roll-back of a 2013 initiative by then-Attorney General Eric Holder called “Smart on Crime”, which sought to relieve overcrowded federal prisons. Holder’s program directed prosecutors to assess non-violent drug offenders on a case-by-case basis to determine what charges should be brought.
Starting in August 2013, if it was determined someone arrested for a federal drug offense did not have a history of violence or was a gang member, prosecutors were encouraged by DOJ not to bring charges that carried mandatory minimum sentences.
Session’s directive issued to federal prosecutors late Thursday not only rescinds Holder’s policy, but also requires U.S. attorneys to follow sentencing guidelines in every case. Any recommendation outside of the “advisory guideline range”, will require the approval of a DOJ supervisor.
In a Thursday speech in Charleston, W.Va., the former Alabama senator hinted at an explanation for reversing Justice’s stance on prosecuting drug offenders.
“The opioid and heroin epidemic is a contributor to the recent surge of violent crime in America,” Sessions remarked. “Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.”
Since 2013, the federal prison population has decreased by nearly 14 percent, largely due to new U.S. Sentencing Commission policies that gave tens of thousands of drug offenders the possibility to be released before completing the entirety of their sentence. Of approximately 190,000 current federal inmates, almost half are serving time for drug crimes.
While law enforcement advocates have praised the move, civil rights and other liberal groups like Drug Policy Alliance argue tougher prosecution of non-violent crimes is bad public policy.
“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,” the organization’s deputy director, Michael Collins, told NPR.
“Sessions is taking the country back to the 1980s by escalating the failed policies of the drug war.”
[NPR] [AP] [Photo courtesy Taylor Hill/Getty Images via Vice]