Attorney General Jeff Sessions enacts harsher charging, sentencing policy

WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions is directing federal prosecutors to seek "the most serious'' criminal charges against suspects, a move that would result in severe prison sentences – and is expected to reverse recent declines in the overcrowded federal prison system.

The brief, two-page directive, issued to the 94 U.S. attorneys offices across the country late Thursday, replaces a 2013 memo put in place by then-Attorney General Eric Holder that sought to limit the use of mandatory-minimum sentencing rules that had condemned some non-violent offenders to long prison terms – that proved to be expensive for taxpayers.

Justice officials said the new policy would not target low-level drug offenders, unless they were linked to firearms, gang membership or other aggravating crimes.

This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency,'' Sessions said in the directive. "This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial... sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.''

Under the plan, ten-year mandatory minimum sentences would typically be sought in cases where suspects were in possession of 1 kilogram of heroin (equal to thousands of doses); 5 kilograms of cocaine (about 11 pounds); or 1,000 kilograms of marijuana (more than 2,000 pounds).

"There will be circumstances in which good judgment would lead a prosecutor to conclude that a strict application of... the charging policy is not warranted,'' Sessions said. But such exercises of discretion, the attorney general said, would be subject to high-level approval.

Justice officials already have alerted federal prison officials that the action, in conjunction with the administration's recently announced increase in immigration prosecutions, would likely result in a larger prison population.

Last month, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to bring felony charges against immigrants suspected of making repeated illegal entries to the United States. Undocumented entry cases have been previously charged as misdemeanors.

During the Obama administration, Holder's policy had sought to reduce the size of the federal prison system that has long been a financial drag on the Justice Department, representing about 25% of its budget. That policy echoed shifts in law enforcement policy that had been sweeping the states in recent years. State officials have increasingly acknowledged that they can no longer bear the cost of warehousing offenders – many for drug crimes – who were targets of harsh punishments which began decades ago.

The number of sentenced prisoners in federal custody fell by 7,981 inmates – or 5% – between the end of 2009 and 2015, according to a January Pew Research Center analysis. Preliminary figures for 2016 show the decline continued during Obama’s last full year in office and that the overall reduction during his tenure will likely exceed 5%, the center found.

The federal prison population now stands at nearly 190,000 inmates.

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