Attorney General Jeff Sessions is directing federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible against the vast majority of suspects, a reversal of Obama-era policies that is sure to send more people to prison and for much longer terms.
The move has long been expected from Sessions, a former federal prosecutor who cut his teeth during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic and who has promised to make combating violence and drugs the Justice Department’s top priority.
“This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency,” Sessions wrote in a memo sent Thursday night to U.S. attorneys and made public early Friday.
Advocates quickly criticized the move as a revival of the worst aspects of the drug war, which subjected nonviolent, lower-level offenders to unfairly harsh sentences that disproportionately hurt minority communities.
“It looks like we’re going to fill the prisons back up after finally getting the federal prison population down,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “But the social and human costs will be much higher.”
The announcement is an unmistakable undoing of Obama administration criminal justice policies that aimed to ease overcrowding in federal prisons and contributed to a national rethinking of how drug criminals were prosecuted and sentenced.
Sessions contends a spike in violence in some big cities and the nation’s opioid epidemic show the need for a return to tougher tactics. He foreshadowed the plan early in his tenure, when he signaled his strong support for the federal government’s continued use of private prisons, reversing another Obama directive to phase out their use.
“The opioid and heroin epidemic is a contributor to the recent surge of violent crime in America,” Sessions said in remarks prepared for a Thursday speech in Charleston, West Virginia. “Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.”
The policy memo says prosecutors should “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” — something more likely to trigger mandatory minimum sentences. Those rules limit a judge’s discretion and are typically dictated, for example, by the quantity of drugs involved in a crime.
The memo concedes there will be cases in which “good judgment” will warrant a prosecutor to veer from that rule. But any exceptions will need to be approved by top supervisors, and the reasons must be documented, allowing the Justice Department to track the handling of such cases by its 94 U.S. attorney’s offices.
And even if they opt not to pursue the most serious charges, prosecutors are still required to provide judges with all the details of a case when defendants are sentenced, which could lengthen prison terms.
The requirements “place great confidence in our prosecutors and supervisors to apply…