Is there a generational divide among U.S. prosecutors? The Christian Science Monitor poses that question, citing Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ support for mandatory minimum sentences and a “different breed of often younger prosecutors, who believe that a more nuanced approach is needed, especially regarding nonviolent drug offenses.” In Houston, for example, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said that most marijuana cases would no longer be subject to arrest or prosecution. Instead, offenders would pay a fine and enter a diversion program. The debate, especially over how to prosecute nonviolent drug offenses, comes amid troubling spikes in violence in cities from Los Angeles to Baltimore, from Chicago to Memphis. It also comes after studies that show disproportionate penalties for minorities caught in the criminal justice system.
“Sessions and the U.S. Attorney’s office are going backward in the direction that we came from, which is kind of sad,” says Robert James, a former DeKalb County, Ga., district attorney. He spearheaded an Anti-Recidivism Court, where participants, ages 17 to 25, take part in an intensive one-year life skills program. All charges are dropped on graduation. At the same time, he led an anti-gang task force that prosecuted national gang figures trying to consolidate smaller youth gangs in the county. Other former prosecutors think Sessions is right to take a harder line. “During the era of a criminal justice system with mandatory minimum sentencing, the crime rate plummeted,” says Bill Otis, a former federal prosecutor in Virginia.