Ses­sions sparks fear with push for harsh sen­tences

The Progress-Index Weekend - - NATION & WORLD - By Sadie Gur­man

WASH­ING­TON — The na­tion’s fed­eral prosecutors should bring the tough­est charges pos­si­ble against most crime sus­pects, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions in­structed in a move that crit­ics as­sailed as a re­turn to failed drug-war poli­cies that un­duly af­fected mi­nori­ties and filled pris­ons with non­vi­o­lent of­fend­ers.

The move an­nounced Fri­day is a re­ver­sal of Obama-era poli­cies that is sure to send more peo­ple to prison and for much longer terms. It has long been ex­pected from Ses­sions, a for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor who cut his teeth dur­ing the height of the crack co­caine epi­demic and who has promised to make com­bat­ing vi­o­lence and drugs the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s top pri­or­ity.

“This pol­icy af­firms our re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­force the law, is moral and just, and pro­duces con­sis­tency,” Ses­sions wrote in a memo to U.S. at­tor­neys made pub­lic early Fri­day.

Ad­vo­cates warned the shift would crowd fed­eral pris­ons and strain Jus­tice Depart­ment re­sources. Some in­volved in crim­i­nal jus­tice dur­ing the drug war feared the hu­man im­pact would look sim­i­lar.

“It ru­ined fam­i­lies and took away a large num­ber of African-Amer­i­can men from their com­mu­ni­ties at their prime work­ing years,” said Ge­orge­town law pro­fes­sor Paul But­ler, who was a fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor dur­ing the 1990s. “You had peo­ple who weren’t able to be re­spon­si­ble fa­thers for their kids, who weren’t able to serve a cou­ple of years for mak­ing a mis­take, then come home and do bet­ter. That’s the era Jeff Ses­sions wants to re­turn us to.”

The an­nounce­ment is an un­mis­tak­able un­do­ing of Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion crim­i­nal jus­tice poli­cies that aimed to ease over­crowd­ing in fed­eral pris­ons and con­trib­uted to a na­tional re­think­ing of how drug crim­i­nals were pros­e­cuted and sen­tenced.

Ses­sions con­tends a spike in vi­o­lence in some big cities and the na­tion’s opi­oid epi­demic show the need for a re­turn to tougher tac­tics.

He fore­shad­owed the plan early in his ten­ure, when he sig­naled his strong sup­port for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s con­tin­ued use of pri­vate pris­ons, re­vers­ing another Obama directive to phase out their use.

“We know that drugs and crime go hand-in-hand,” Ses­sions said in a Fri­day speech. “Drug traf­fick­ing is an in­her­ently vi­o­lent busi­ness. If you want to col­lect a drug debt, you can’t file a law­suit in court. You col­lect it by the bar­rel of a gun.”

The pol­icy memo says prosecutors should “charge and pur­sue the most se­ri­ous, read­ily prov­able of­fense” — some­thing more likely to trig­ger manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences. Those rules limit a judge’s dis­cre­tion and are typ­i­cally dic­tated, for ex­am­ple, by the quan­tity of drugs in­volved in a crime.


At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, here at the Jus­tice Depart­ment in Wash­ing­ton, is di­rect­ing fed­eral prosecutors to pur­sue the most se­ri­ous charges pos­si­ble against the vast ma­jor­ity of sus­pects, a re­ver­sal of Obama-era poli­cies that is sure to send more peo­ple to prison and for much longer terms.

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