WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions is taking the war on drugs nuclear, ordering federal prosecutors across the country to pursue the longest prison sentences possible for drug offenders and others in a reversal of Obama-era policies.
“It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense. This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency,” Sessions said in a memo to all federal prosecutors sent Thursday and shared with the media Friday morning.
The move will mean longer prison sentences and more people in prison, a dramatic reversal from the Obama administration’s efforts to lower the number of people in prison. The U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and many people who are in prison are in so for nonviolent drug offenses. Obama pushed to help some of those people get clemency, and a bipartisan effort is underway in Congress to reform sentencing, though that’s stalled under Trump.
Civil rights advocates decried the move.
“The Trump administration is returning to archaic and deeply-flawed policies,” said Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “Sessions is leaving little to no room for prosecutors to use their judgement and determine what criminal charges best fit the crime. That approach is what led to this mess of mass incarceration. It exploded the prison population, didn’t help public safety, and cost taxpayers billions in enforcement and incarceration costs.”
Sessions, who was a U.S. attorney in Alabama before becoming senator, is well known for his hardline tough-on-crime views. He has repeatedly claimed that all drug use — including marijuana — is fueling a nationwide violent crime wave, citing a recent uptick in the murder rate even though crime rates are still dramatically lower than they were two and three decades ago.
“The murder rate has surged 10% nationwide, the largest increase in murder since 1968. And we know that drugs and crime go and in hand. They just do, the facts prove that’s so,” he declared during a ceremony at the Justice Department where he was honored by the Sergeants Benevolent Association of New York City, arguing prosecutors “deserve to be un-handcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington.”
“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. “Together we will win this fight.”
The new memo says prosecutors can only seek the less-than-harshest charges and penalties if they clear it with the U.S. attorney or attorney general.
The directive undoes guidance from Obama’s first Attorney General, Eric Holder, who said prosecutors could leave drug quantities out of charging documents so as not to trigger long sentences in a 2013 initiative. That was aimed at encouraging shorter sentences for nonviolent drug offenders to save DOJ resources for more serious crimes.
Holder fired back at Sessions.
“The policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime. It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety,” he said in a statement, accusing Sessions of “turning back the clock to a discredited, emotionally-motivated, ideological policy.”
Sessions is facing his own legal headaches. He was forced to recuse himself from having any role in the FBI’s investigation into whether Trump campaign officials colluded with Russia after it came out that he’d met with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. — and lied about it under oath. He then seemingly violated that recusal by recommending that President Trump fire FBI Director James Comey earlier this week, raising ethical and legal questions about his role in the firing.
While Trump took to Twitter to threaten his former FBI director Friday, Sessions continued his silence on Comey’s firing. He refused to take reporters’ questions at the press conference and ignored shouted questions as he exited a press conference and rushing by reporter in the Department of Justice hallways as his security detail blocked them from getting to close.