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Sessions sparks fear with push for harsh sentences

SADIE GURMAN | 5/19/2017, 7:53 p.m.
The nation’s federal prosecutors should bring the toughest charges possible against most crime suspects, Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed in ...
Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses the crowd with opening remarks during a Drug Enforcement Administration 360 Heroin and Opioid Response Summit at the University of Charleston, May 11, in Charleston, West Virginia. Sam Owens

WASHINGTON (AP) – The nation’s federal prosecutors should bring the toughest charges possible against most crime suspects, Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed in a move that critics assailed as a return to failed drug-war policies that unduly affected minorities and filled prisons with nonviolent offenders.

The move announced Friday is a reversal of Obama-era policies that is sure to send more people to prison and for much longer terms. It 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 to U.S. attorneys made public early Friday.

Advocates warned the shift would crowd federal prisons and strain Justice Department resources. Some involved in criminal justice during the drug war feared the human impact would look similar.

“It ruined families and took away a large number of African American men from their communities at their prime working years,” said Georgetown law professor Paul Butler, who was a federal prosecutor during the 1990s. “You had people who weren’t able to be responsible fathers for their kids, who weren’t able to serve a couple of years for making a mistake, then come home and do better. That’s the era Jeff Sessions wants to return us to.”

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.

“We know that drugs and crime go hand in hand,” Sessions said in a Friday speech. “Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’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 veering from that rule. And Sessions said prosecutors maintain “discretion to avoid sentences that would result in an injustice.”

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.