Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the maximum punishment for drug offences, in a sweeping rollback of Obama-era criminal justice policies.
Sessions advised that all criminals be charged with the “most serious, readily provable offence,” or whichever crime has the longest sentence.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world.
Currently there are 2.4 million adults in all prison systems, approximately 211,000 of those are in federal prisons. That means nearly one in 110 Americans is in prison.
He is essentially reversing a 2013 memo from previous Attorney General Eric Holder, which advised federal prosecutors not to adhere to “mandatory minimums” for less serious crimes.
This meant that Assistant U.S. Attorneys could use their discretion based on the circumstances of each case.
In particular, defendants charged with drug offences (one in five of those incarcerated are there for a drug charge) would be given a lighter sentence if they were not part of a gang, cartel, or trafficking organization.
In a memo, Holder called the new policy “unwise” and “ill-informed,” and that it “is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime.”
The decision “ignores a rare bipartisan political consensus that has formed around sentencing reform effort and will take this nation back to a discredited past,” said Holder.
Many believe that the Attorney General’s change in policy furthers the discrimination in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Sen. Rand Paul, a medical doctor, said in a statement that “mandatory minimums have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long.”
Nearly 40% of the total prison population is Black and 19% is Latino.
“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,” Paul said.
Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program said in a statement that Sessions “is leaving little to no room for prosecutors to use their judgment and determine what criminal charges best fit the crime.”
Chettiar said ignoring prosecutors’ discretion and issuing blanket mandatory minimums is “what led to this mess of mass incarceration. It exploded the prison population, didn’t help public safety, and cost taxpayers billions in enforcement and incarceration costs.”
The Brennan Center’s research shows that higher incarceration rates have not lowered overall crime rates.
Sessions said in a news conference that he has in fact “given prosecutors discretion to avoid injustice,” but that does not mean they have the ability to ignore mandatory minimums.
He also repeated Donald Trump’s campaign claim that violent crime in urban areas is on the rise.
Members of the U.S. Council of Mayors, including mayors from New Orleans and Columbia, South Carolina, debunked that claim during the 2016 campaign.
According to data from the FBI, urban crimes rates have been in decline in the period from 1991 to 2014, the last full year of data available.
Sessions also said that “these are not low-level drug offenders we in the federal courts are focusing on.”
However, data from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that over half of those in federal prison are there for drug offences.
The new policy mimics the 1994 Crime Bill introduced by President Bill Clinton. At that time the Department of Justice also established the ‘three strikes’ policy, which gave offenders life in prison if they had been already had two prior felony convictions.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton came under fire for defending the law 20 years prior. At the time she said the law kept “the kinds of kids that are called super-predators” off the streets, which many in the African American community felt perpetuated the stereotype of young Black men being criminals.
Ms. Clinton said on the campaign trail she regretted ever defending the law, however.
It resulted in prison overcrowding, cost taxpayer money, and ultimately did not decrease the black population in prisons.
Ames Grawert, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program said “Republicans, Democrats, advocates, and law enforcement are increasingly moving away from the exact approach Sessions is bringing back.”