Pubdate: Wed, 10 May 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Rebecca R. Ruiz


WASHINGTON - Attorney General Jeff Sessions is expected to soon
toughen rules on prosecuting drug crimes, according to people familiar
with internal deliberations, in what would be a major rollback of
Obama-era policies that would put his first big stamp on a Justice
Department he has criticized as soft on crime.

Mr. Sessions has been reviewing a pair of memos issued by his
predecessor, Eric H. Holder Jr., who encouraged federal prosecutors to
use their discretion in what criminal charges they filed, particularly
when those charges carried mandatory minimum penalties.

The policy under consideration would return the department to the era
of George W. Bush. In 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered the
nation's prosecutors to bring the most serious charges possible in the
vast majority of cases, with limited exceptions. Mr. Sessions could,
however, craft his own policy that does not go quite so far; a draft
is still being reviewed.

Mr. Sessions, who cut his teeth as a young prosecutor in Alabama
during the height of the crack epidemic, came to office promising to
make being tough on crime a top priority, and his new guidance on
charging and sentencing would be the strongest articulation yet of his
emphasis on a law-and-order agenda.

In contrast to Mr. Sessions's views on drug crimes, the Obama
administration pushed for more lenient and flexible sentencing laws
and presided over the first decline in the federal prison population
in a generation.

Current and former government officials have said for weeks that Mr.
Sessions's new policy could come at any time. They said Tuesday that
they expected to see it finalized shortly, and Mr. Sessions himself
has foreshadowed the announcement this year, calling for a return to
tougher federal charging policies in speeches and issuing memos
telling prosecutors to anticipate policy shifts.

"As the attorney general has consistently said, we are reviewing all
Department of Justice policies to focus on keeping Americans safe and
will be issuing further guidance and support to our prosecutors
executing this priority - including an updated memorandum on charging
for all criminal cases," Ian Prior, a Justice Department spokesman,
said Tuesday.

Mr. Sessions's directives to United States attorneys would replace
guidance issued by Mr. Holder in 2010, when he told prosecutors not to
feel compelled to seek the most serious viable charges in every case.

"Equal justice depends on individualized justice," Mr. Holder wrote,
wiping clean Mr. Ashcroft's 2003 orders to pursue "the most serious,
readily provable offense in all federal prosecutions" and emphasize
consistency in drug cases.

In 2013, Mr. Holder further directed federal prosecutors to avoid
seeking mandatory minimum sentences, suggesting that in certain cases
they omit details about drug quantities from charging documents so as
not to prompt automatically harsh penalties.

"We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are
reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers," he
wrote in 2013. "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too
long and for truly no good law enforcement reason."

Mr. Holder has said his policies were intended to reduce taxpayer
spending on prisons and other public safety costs and to ease
inequities in the justice system by scrutinizing the circumstances of
each case rather than applying one-size-fits-all punishments of the
toughest variety.

Mr. Sessions has argued that the Obama administration's less
aggressive approach toward prosecuting drug cases has inspired other

"Many violent crimes are driven by drug trafficking and drug
trafficking organizations," he wrote in a March 8 memo that
underscored his scrutiny of the issue.

"We do have strong evidence that aggressive prosecutions of federal
laws can be effective in combating crime," he wrote, attributing a
rise in the number of murders in the United States to a decline in
prosecutions for violent crimes. "Our department's experience over
decades shows these prosecutions can help save lives."

Sonja B. Starr, a law professor at the University of Michigan who
specializes in criminal sentencing, said that even if Mr. Sessions
were to return to the policies of the Ashcroft era - instructing
prosecutors to pursue the strictest charges and sentences - there
might not be drastic changes in how prosecutors handle drug cases.

"There's still a lot of discretion left to prosecutors to determine
what is readily provable," Ms. Starr said. "Under any regime, whatever
the Department of Justice policy, the choice is made by individual

Still, she said, should Mr. Sessions push for a uniformly strict
posture in prosecuting drug crimes, it would mark a significant shift
in tone.

"Many advocates think there are too many mandatory minimums, and that
federal charging in general is still too harsh, even after the shift
in policy under Holder," Ms. Starr said. "But this isn't especially
surprising given what we know about the attorney general and the
president and their view on criminal justice."
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