US prosecutors told to push for more, harsher punishments

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 Sessions policy harkens back to the Bush-era "Aschroft memo", which stated that "federal prosecutors must charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense".

Holder's memo didn't leave prosecutors totally powerless. But that wasn't, apparently, enough for Sessions. Defendants who met a set of criteria such as not belonging to a large-scale drug trafficking organization, gang or cartel, qualified for lesser charges-and in turn less prison time-under Holder's policy. Prosecutors have the discretion to decide what someone gets charged with - or if a defendant is charged at all. "Charge-bargaining", whereby prosecutors agree to charge defendants with less harsh sentencing guidelines in exchange for cooperating with the authorities in other investigation, is a powerful "carrot" available to some state prosecutors.

You can read the full text of Sessions' memo to prosecutors at this link or by scrolling below.

"The Trump administration is returning to archaic and deeply-flawed policies", Inimai Chettiar, the center's justice program director, said Friday. The memo itself was drafted by Sessions' adviser Steven H. Cook, who infamously told a criminal justice panel that "the federal criminal justice system simply is not broken".

To some degree, this is hardly surprising; Trump and Sessions have long spoken about how they are "tough on crime" and, therefore, support stringent prison sentences for criminals.

"If you are a drug trafficker we will not look the other way, we will not be willfully blind to your misconduct", he said, promising that prosecutors would focus on traffickers and not low-level drug users.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the House Oversight Committee and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein demanding an explanation for Session's role in President Donald Trump's dismissal of Comey, according to the website. "By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences". He falsely claimed that the murder rate is at a 45-year high when it's actually near a historical low.

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Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, has similarly taken a hardline view on crime and drugs. He's been a fierce critic of relaxing sentences. He criticized police reforms led by the Obama administration during a November 2015 Senate hearing called "The War on Police".

This all went against a big policy shift by President Barack Obama's administration.

Obama administration officials cited that decline and a drop in the overall number of drug prosecutions as evidence that policies were working as intended. It publicly spoke of the opioid epidemic as primarily an issue of public health, not criminal justice. The Holder Memo became relevant only when federal mandatory minimums for drug offenses kicked in.

All of this had the support of experts and the public, who widely see a public health approach as the right way to put an end to the opioid epidemic. And most of those charged with selling 10 kilograms of drugs could also be charged for selling 1 kilogram of drugs. The report found that the low rate was largely explained by a shortage of treatment options, including medication-assisted treatment.

The federal change is also likely to increase the number of people in the United States who are sentenced to USA prison.

Holder fired back at Sessions. It could encourage legislation or enforce more executive actions that make police and prosecutors even more aggressive than they are today.

"This is a key part of President Trump's promise to keep America safe", Sessions said in remarks at the Justice Department. "It will destroy your life".

The Sessions Memo, however, is not a mere restatement of the Ashcroft Memo.

  • Audrey Hill