For more than three decades, sentencing practices were built on harsh punishment, strict minimum sentences and a "tough on crime" approach that increased prison populations at a staggering rate in the name of drug-free justice. While incarceration rates have dropped over the last few years, new justice department developments warn of a national relapse into old, destructive sentencing practices.
The first signs of War on Drugs-era reform appeared in 2010, as Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law and then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder put forward a memorandum on charging and sentencing. The memorandum focused on an individualized approach to sentencing and pushed for decreased implementation of harsh minimum sentencing practices. In time, the memorandum found support on both sides of the aisle and jump-started a bipartisan push for sentencing reform.
But all that work came to a crashing halt when newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions seemingly nullified Holder's work. Sessions instituted a new set of guidelines pushing for a one-size-fits-all idea of justice rooted in rigid maximum sentencing practices and harsh sentence minimums. Sessions' one-and-a-half page memorandum reverts back to the practices that made the War on Drugs one of the most detrimental eras of U.S. history, and the gateway to the nation's ranking as the most incarcerated country in the world, with drug offenders currently standing as one-in-five inmates in the U.S. prison system.
Sessions has been outspoken about his preference towards harsh drug sentencing, saying in his memorandum: "By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences."
Sessions describes his directives as, "simple but important," and goes on to say, "They place great confidence in our prosecutors and supervisors to apply them in a thoughtful and disciplined manner. with the goal of achieving just and consistent results in federal cases."
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But the comeback of this "tough on crime," mandatory minimums ideology made popular in the 70s and into the mid-2000s is anything but just and consistent. In fact, data analysis suggests that long minimum sentences have had little effect on recent dips in crime.
"As long as there is a demand for illegal drugs, there will be a large pool of potential sellers, as evidenced by the fact that the number of persons incarcerated for a drug offense has increased by more than 1,000 percent since 1980," reads a brief from the Sentencing Project.
While little concrete evidence exists to suggest the validity of long-term minimum sentences in cases of federal drug prosecutions, Plentiful research highlights the detrimental effects of harsh minimum sentencing practices.
At the forefront sits the disproportionate number of minority lives affected by the War on Drugs' prosecution mentality. According to data from 2013, male black and latino offenders received 20 percent longer sentences than white men. Although only about 13 percent of the country's population was black in 2012, research from the ACLU shows that over 65 percent of prisoners serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses were black.
Backtrack to the peak of "tough on crime," severe-minimum sentencing initiatives and the numbers increase further. Between 1980 and 2007, blacks were arrested on drug charges at a rate 2.8 to 5.5 percent higher than whites. These numbers correspond with the toughest years of minimum sentencing for nonviolent and drug-related crimes which lead to a sudden skyrocket in incarceration rates.
The number of persons incarcerated for a drug offense has increased by more than 1,000 percent since 1980.
"Attorney General Jeff Sessions' order to pursue the toughest possible penalties for drug offenses is a retrogressive approach that is out of step with what Americans want, and a return to the misguided policies of the past that led us to become the world's leader in incarceration," said deputy legal director of Southern Poverty Law Center, Lisa Graybill, in a statement to VICE Impact. "The War On Drugs is widely recognized as failed policy that did little to diminish drug use and succeeded only in swelling our country's prison population by unfairly and disproportionately ensnaring people of color and the poor in the criminal justice system."
And the symptoms of disproportionate mass incarceration go beyond cellblocks. As the number of racial minorities in long-term incarceration grows, so do the number of single income families. Education rates in the communities most affected drop, and crime, including the drug offenses that sparked the breaking of families to begin with, continues as people struggle to get by. As individuals convicted of drug offenses under minimum sentence requirements exit incarceration, they find themselves in a new societal prison where their criminal record, especially in the case of felony convictions, may create automatic blacklists for jobs, housing, and custody cases, feeding the cycle of poverty first promoted by long sentences.
Despite early-stage efforts for prison and sentencing reform over the last seven years, rates of incarceration remain globally unmatched in the face of 30 years-worth of prison build up, disproportionately made up of black and brown men detained for relatively minor drug crime.
If Session's newest memorandum is rigorously enforced, particularly in the face of the nation's growing opioid crisis, the US may face a haunting era of justice mistakes, on top of an already crippled and overpopulated prison system.
While Session's memorandum cracks down hard on sentencing leniency, it does include allowance for some exceptions, the specifics of which are largely unclear at this time. The reach of Session's policy will largely ride on how widely these exceptions are interpreted and implemented by federal prosecutors.
The policy is also inherently limited in its focus on federal prosecution. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in 2015, less than nine percent were in federal prisons. The remaining 91.3 percent of inmates were under state and local jurisdictions, control of which is limited at the federal level.
A clear impact of the new announcement is yet to be seen, but trends will likely appear as prosecutors begin working under the policy in the coming weeks.