Yes, Jeff Sessions Is Ramping Up the War on Drugs, Again

The attorney general told federal prosecutors to hit defendants with the harshest possible charges in a total reversal of policy under Obama.
Drew Schwartz
Brooklyn, US
May 12, 2017, 3:58pm
Photo of Sessions and weed by Flickr users Gage Skidmore and Retinafunk, respectively

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to slap suspected criminals with the most severe charges they can, revoking an Obama-era policy designed to curb penalties for low-level, nonviolent offenders, the Washington Post reports.

Sessions issued a memo Thursday instructing prosecutors to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense" possible—defining serious offenses as those that carry the "most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences." The order explicitly reversed former attorney general Eric Holder's mandate to scale back the number of mandatory minimum sentences imposed on people charged with nonviolent drug crimes.


Holder's memo, issued in 2013, encouraged prosecutors to shy away from assigning nonviolent defendants in drug-related cases with charges that would trigger mandatory minimums. If the suspected criminals weren't violent, didn't belong to a gang or cartel, and had no involvement with a major trafficking ring, prosecutors were instructed to hand them more lenient penalties.

Sessions's order tells prosecutors to do pretty much the opposite in the Trump administration's most tangible move yet to jump-start the war on drugs.

The ACLU, predictably, slammed Sessions's decision, arguing that the policy of dishing out "draconian" mandatory minimums to nonviolent drug offenders has "failed for 40 years."

"Jeff Sessions is pushing federal prosecutors to reverse progress and repeat a failed experiment—the War on Drugs—that has devastated the lives and rights of millions of Americans, ripping apart families and communities and setting millions, particularly Black people and other people of color, on a vicious cycle of incarceration," Udi Ofer, who directs the ACLU's Campaign for Smart Justice, said in a statement.

Holder scaled back mandatory minimums, in part, to try to shrink the federal prison population. By rescinding his order, Sessions will likely increase that population—something he apparently anticipated, as the Post reports, when he gave the greenlight for the continued reliance on private prisons. Sally Yates, who replaced Holder's successor Loretta Lynch as Obama's attorney general before her firing, had explicitly called for the phasing out of those facilities.

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