Jeff Sessions Orders Harsher Sentences, Taking U.S. Policy Back to 1980s

Attorney general is rolling back Obama-era guidelines set up to benefit non-violent drug offenders

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Jeff Sessions Orders Harsher Sentences, Taking U.S. Policy Back to 1980s

On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo ordering Justice Department staff to charge criminal suspects – specifically low-level, non-violent drug offenders – with the most severe crime possible and pursue the toughest sentences allowed, rolling back progress made under the Obama administration.

The two-page memo, released to the public Friday morning, requires federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences against suspects. "It is core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense," he wrote. "This policy confirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency."

This rolls back the 2013 directive from former AG Eric Holder, known as the Holder Memo, which advised federal prosecutors to use their discretion when building a case against non-violent drug offenders, as a way to reserve harsh mandatory minimum sentences only for violent or high-level drug crimes. Under the new order, there is still room for prosecutors to decide to pursue less severe charges – but those decisions must be cleared with Sessions' office, which presumably will be a difficult process.

In a statement on Friday afternoon, Holder called Sessions' new directive "dumb on crime," noting that his 2013 policy had increased the number of high-level offenders who were prosecuted. "Abandoning this evidence-based progress and turning back the clock to a discredited, emotionally-motivated, ideological policy also threatens the financial of the federal criminal justice system," he wrote, before calling on Congress to reverse the order by enacting legal criminal justice reforms. "It should do so and ensure that criminal justice policy is designed for 21st-century realities and not beholden to failed 20th century ideology."

"This is a disastrous move that will increase the prison population, exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and do nothing to reduce drug use or increase public safety," Drug Policy Alliance Deputy Director Michael Collins told NPR. "Sessions is taking the country back to the 1980s by escalating the failed policies of the drug war."