President Trump’s Justice Department (DOJ) is pursuing federal drug crime suspects more vigorously than has been the case over the past eight years. In a stark reversal of Obama administration drug-related policies, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is directing federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges available against most drug crime suspects.
Sessions recently issued a memo calling for federal prosecutors to address or reassess how drug crimes are reviewed for prosecution. In summary, he called for drug crimes that are more “readily provable” and carry the highest mandatory sentences to take priority. In addition to mandatory minimum sentences, this policy would also likely result in many more individuals—and a disproportionate number of minorities—being sentenced to increasingly longer prison terms because of limitations attached to judicial discretion.
Despite prosecuting the most serious offense, prosecutors are still required to provide judges with all details of a particular case, and lesser included offenses have the potential to add sentencing enhancements.
A Change from Past Administrations
Sessions’ edict rescinds former Attorney General Eric Holder’s 2013 memo directing prosecutors to exercise their own discretion in charging suspects so as not to trigger longer mandatory sentences, particularly for nonviolent, lower-level offenders. Holder’s changes sought to address longstanding criticisms of how the feds handled drug crimes. He attacked mandatory minimum and habitual offender statutes as promoting “unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities” that failed to address basic prosecution principles. Holder added that long sentences for non-violent, lower-level offenders do not promote deterrence, public safety, or rehabilitation—something that has increasingly been proven over the past several years.
Of course, Holder’s directive was not widely accepted as some prosecutors expressed concern that reducing the possibility of harsher penalties lessened their plea-bargaining leverage. Sessions asserted that Holder’s policies bred inconsistencies in federal prosecution and negated the former’s belief in the necessity for mandatory minimum sentencing.
Seeking the harshest charges and penalties for non-violent, lower-level, and first-time offenders flies in the face of justice.
Opponents assert that this move essentially resuscitates the worst aspects of the War on Drugs which resulted in record numbers of non-violent, lower-level drug offenders being unfairly sentenced to unduly harsh sentences that disproportionately affected minority communities.
A growing consensus among defense attorneys is that Sessions’ new policy echoes past practices that led to mass incarceration, compromised communities, devastated families, and wasted millions of dollars.
Given efforts by the Obama administration to reduce ridiculously high prison populations and chronic overcrowding problems, this effort looks to reverse any progress made while also increasing human and societal costs. In fact, since 2013, the federal prison population dropped from 220,000 inmates to just shy of 190,000. However, nearly half of all federal prison inmates are in prison for drug crimes.
Sessions is also a strong proponent of private prisons which the Obama administration was working to eliminate.
Sessions began his career as a federal prosecutor during the heyday of the crack cocaine epidemic and he made combatting drugs and drug-related violence among the DOJ’s top priorities. He repeatedly asserts that this policy seeks to produce consistency in enforcing the law and cites a recent increase in opioid use—particularly heroin—and violence in larger cities as providing the impetus for this change in direction.
How This Change Could Impact Minnesota
This mandate applies to all federal prosecutors in every state and will limit their ability to craft individual plea agreements based on individual circumstances, thus increasing the possibility of more cases to prosecute and longer sentences.
Minnesota’s three federal prisons—Waseca, Sandstone and Duluth—could soon bear the brunt of a population boom and result in the increased need for private prisons.