In a memo sent to prosecutors last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlined his policy of going after those charged in criminal cases with the utmost vigor, a policy that criminal justice reform advocates fear will lead to many non-violent and low level drug offenders being sentenced to harsh penalties.
The memo urged assistant U.S. attorneys to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” and stated that “[t]his policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency. This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”
“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,” said Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Sessions is taking the country back to the 1980s by escalating the failed policies of the drug war.”
The policy is a reversal from what Attorney General Eric Holder – Sessions’ predecessor – urged prosecutors to do under President Obama. Holder told prosecutors to avoid charges that carried mandatory minimum sentences in the cases of non-violent drug offenders, a tactic that gave them more leeway when it came to what kind of sentences those charged could face.
“The last thing our country needs to do is go back to the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ mentality that has made the United States the number one incarcerator of the world,” said Anthony Papa, manager of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Jeff Sessions’ push for long mandatory minimums will destroy people, families and communities.”
For his part, Sessions claimed at a speech later that day that the new memo was not aimed at low level drug users. “If you are a drug trafficker,” he said, “we will not look the other way. We will not be willfully blind to your misconduct.”
One has to wonder whether Sessions – sensing the blowback from his previous pronouncements on marijuana – is looking for other avenues in which to affect drug policy. New in his job, maybe Sessions knows what he ultimately wants to accomplish and he is searching for the best ways to do that.
The problem, of course, is that what Sessions ultimately wants to accomplish is diametrically opposed to the goals of the marijuana law reform community.