As expected, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed one of the central elements of the Obama administration’s criminal justice reform agenda: a Justice Department policy that led to prosecutors in drug cases often filing charges in a way that avoided triggering mandatory minimum sentences in federal law, reports Politico. Sessions yesterday withdrew a 2013 directive from Attorney General Eric Holder that instructed federal prosecutors not to specify the amount of drugs involved when charging low-level and non-violent drug offenders. That policy gave judges discretion to set sentences lower than the mandatory punishments ranging from five years to life in prison that federal law dictates when someone is convicted of a crime involving a certain quantity of illegal drugs.
In a memo to federal prosecutors, Sessions said DOJ will return to a previous policy of filing the most serious charge available under provable facts. The attorney general suggested that moves to lessen the impact of mandatory minimums should come from Congress, rather than unilaterally from the Executive Branch. Sessions’ move bucks a growing trend across the U.S. to abandon some of the harshest sentencing policies created in the 1980s-era war on drugs. Many experts say those laws and sentencing rules led to drug offenders spending decades in prison when lesser sentences would have been adequate. The laws also ballooned the prison population, leading to unsustainable costs for some states. The DOJ shift “to prosecuting and incarcerating more offenders, including low-level and drug offenders, is an ineffective way to protect public safety,” said Brett Tolman, a U.S. Attorney for Utah under President George W. Bush. At an opioid-abuse summit in West Virginia yesterday, Sessions conceded that problem won’t be solved solely by putting more people in prison. He insisted that tougher law enforcement is an essential part of the solution. “We’re on a bad trend right now,” he said. “We’ve got too much complacency about drugs. Too much talk about recreational drugs.”