Friday, 12 May 2017 15:44

Sessions issues sweeping new criminal charging policy

Written by Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky | The Washington Post
Sessions issues sweeping new criminal charging policy Photo courtesy of AP

Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned the sweeping criminal charging policy of former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. and directed his federal prosecutors Thursday to charge defendants with the most serious, provable crimes carrying the most severe penalties.

The Holder memo, issued in August 2013, instructed his prosecutors to avoid charging certain defendants with drug offenses that would trigger long mandatory minimum sentences. 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.

But Sessions’s new charging policy, outlined in a two-page memo and sent to more than 5,000 assistant U.S. attorneys across the country and all assistant attorneys general in Washington, orders prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” and rescinds Holder’s policy immediately.

The Sessions memo marks the first significant criminal justice effort by the Trump administration to bring back the toughest practices of the drug war, which had fallen out of favor in recent years with a bipartisan movement to undo the damaging effects of mass incarceration.

“This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us,” the attorney general’s memo says. “By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”

Civil liberties advocates, though, condemned the measure as a return to ineffective policies.

“Jeff Sessions is pushing federal prosecutors to reverse progress and repeat a failed experiment — the War on Drugs — that has devastated the lives and rights of millions of Americans, ripping apart families and communities and setting millions, particularly Black people and other people of color, on a vicious cycle of incarceration,” Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said in a statement. “It failed for 40 years, and from the halls of state legislatures to the ballot box, the American people have said with a clear voice that they want commonsense reforms to sentencing policy, and not a return to the draconian policies that have already cost us too much.”

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