WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
The move amounts to 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. Critics said the change will subject more lower-level offenders to unfairly harsh mandatory minimum sentences.
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.
“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.