Obama-Era Drug-Sentencing Patterns Were Mixed

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When Attorney General Jeff Sessions jettisoned an Obama-era policy aimed at sparing less-serious drug offenders from harsh sentences, he called his new, more aggressive approach “moral and just.” The verdict among law-enforcement professionals is mixed. Government data, along with interviews with former U.S. attorneys under President Obama, suggest the previous policy achieved several, though not all, of its goals, the Wall Street Journal reports. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder pledged that federal prosecutors would focus on more dangerous drug traffickers and avoid charging less-serious offenders with crimes that required mandatory minimum sentences. Federal drug cases dropped by more than 19 percent between 2012 and 2016, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences fell precipitously, from nearly 60 percent to 45 percent. Prosecutions of more-serious crimes involving weapons or cartel leaders increased by 17 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

The new guidelines require federal prosecutors to charge “the most serious readily provable offense,” which means they would seek to build a case carrying the harshest penalties. Government data show one concern raised by Holder’s critics was well-founded: a decline in the share of federal convictions involving drug defendants providing information on other defendants. Cases involving “substantial assistance” from informants dropped from 23 percent in 2012 to under 22 percent last year. The figure was 25 percent in 2008. The decline in “substantial assistance” from defendants troubles some federal prosecutors, who say the threat of harsh sentences helps turn drug offenders against kingpins and cartel leaders. “Mandatory-minimum sentences provide the incentive to acquire cooperation from the most significant drug traffickers,” said Lawrence Leiser, a Virginia federal prosecutor who leads the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. “Any reduction in that cooperation is a lessening in of our ability to protect the public from the scourge of drug trafficking.”

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