Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected soon to toughen rules on prosecuting drug crimes, in what would be a major rollback of Obama-era policies that would put his first big stamp on a Justice Department he has criticized as soft on crime, the New York Times reports. Sessions has been reviewing a pair of memos issued by predecessor Eric Holder, who encouraged federal prosecutors to use their discretion in what criminal charges they filed, particularly when those charges carried mandatory minimum penalties. The policy under consideration would return the department to the era of George W. Bush. In 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered the nation’s prosecutors to bring the most serious charges possible in the vast majority of cases, with limited exceptions. Sessions could craft his own policy that does not go quite so far.
Sessions, who cut his teeth as a prosecutor in Alabama at the height of the crack epidemic, has promised to make being tough on crime a top priority. His new guidance on charging and sentencing would be the strongest articulation of his emphasis on a law-and-order agenda. Officials expect to see it finalized shortly. Sessions’s directives to U.S. Attorneys would replace guidance from Holder in 2010, when he told prosecutors not to feel compelled to seek the most serious viable charges in every case. University of Michigan law Prof. Sonja Starr said that even if Sessions were to return to the policies of the Ashcroft era, there might not be drastic changes in how prosecutors handle drug cases. “There’s still a lot of discretion left to prosecutors to determine what is readily provable,” she said. “Under any regime, whatever the Department of Justice policy, the choice is made by individual prosecutors.” Still, she said, a Sessions push for a uniformly strict posture in prosecuting drug crimes would mark a significant shift in tone.