AG Sessions orders tougher prison sentences as the ‘right and moral thing to do’

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sent a memo to all federal prosecutors instructing them to pursue the “most serious, readily provable offense” for their cases.

The most “serious” crimes are determined by which offenses carry the longest sentences, according to guidelines.

The policy shift is intended to advance public safety and promote respect and consistency for the legal system, Sessions said today during public remarks, adding that it is the “the right and moral thing to do.”

“I trust our prosecutors in the field to make good judgments,” he said. “They deserve to be unhandcuffed and not micro-managed from Washington.”

What’s new

Exceptions for what can be charged will only be allowed with approval from a U.S. attorney, an assistant U.S. attorney general or a designated supervisor. This takes away the discretion from prosecutors to charge a lesser offense but leaves some level of flexibility in place.

The “Sessions memo,” which he sent Thursday night, replaces the so-called “Holder memo,” which was issued in 2013 under President Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder.


Prosecutors will be expected to recommend a sentence within federal guidelines when before a federal judge. Recommendations outside of the guidelines require supervisory approval and a documented explanation. Prior to this memo, prosecutors did not have to get supervisory approval to recommend a sentence outside the guidelines. The idea is to do away with vague sentencing recommendations that vary across the country.

The new policy also requires prosecutors to disclose all the facts in court that could impact sentencing. For example, if someone is caught with 1,000 kilos of marijuana, which would kick in a mandatory 10-year minimum sentence, attorneys must now tell the court the full amount or marijuana. In the past, prosecutors could refrain from declaring the whole amount to the court so as not to trigger the mandatory minimum.

Potential impact

The changes will likely increase the number of people charged as well as the size of the federal prison population.

The Justice Department has already had conversations with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons about the need for flexibility with capacity in relation to immigration detainees, so U.S. officials are apparently aware they may need to increase prison space although at the moment the federal prison population is at an all-time low.

As with immigration enforcement, the administration is taking the view that it will follow the law.

“We are returning to the laws as passed by Congress,” Sessions said today while announcing the new guidelines.

The Sessions policy harkens back to the Bush-era “Aschroft memo,” which stated that “federal prosecutors must charge and pursue the most serious, readily…

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