Eagerly living up to all the worst expectations his drug warrior record suggested for his tenure at the Department of Justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a memo made public Friday has directed federal prosecutors to aim for the harshest possible sentences for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders.
This move reverses guidance from former Attorney General Eric Holder, who permitted prosecutors to leave unmentioned in the charges they brought the quantity of drugs involved in these low-level cases.
By not specifically stating the amount, prosecutors could avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences. That restored local discretion to judges and prosecutors so they could treat low-level offenders as individuals, not a faceless, worthless drug threat. It was a step toward sanity, undermining a callous, one-size-fits-all federal system of ruining people’s lives over petty mistakes that didn’t pose any real threat to the community.
Sessions cast his new policy as a stand for justice and morality, but nothing could be farther from the truth. His defenders will likely attempt to dismiss criticism as partisanship inspired by loyalty to the erstwhile Obama administration. That is also false.
This is not a Democrats vs. Republicans thing. This is a Jeff Sessions vs. basic human decency, common sense and good governance thing.
It’s also a Jeff Sessions vs. most of America thing. As far back as 2014, a strong majority of Americans have support nixing federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws related to the war on drugs. A Reason-Rupe poll that year found “nearly eight out of 10 Americans—77 percent—favor eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders so that judges instead have the ability to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis.”
That’s precisely what the policy Sessions eliminated allowed to happen.
There are other grave practical implications for this change, too. Politico reports:
Sessions’ move bucks a growing trend in recent years—in Washington and in states across the country—to abandon some of the harshest sentencing policies created in the 1980s-era war on drugs. Many experts say those laws and sentencing rules led to drug offenders spending decades in prison or even receiving life behind bars, when lesser sentences would have been adequate. The laws also ballooned the prison population, leading to costs that were unsustainable for some state governments.
As usual, the drug war is the opposite of fiscally conservative.
“It’s really ironic,” said Molly Gill of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that opposes unduly harsh sentencing mandates. “Jeff Sessions touts himself as a champion of public safety, and they want to waste taxpayers’ money on people who aren’t that much of a threat.”