Pubdate: Sat, 13 May 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Rebecca R. Ruiz


WASHINGTON - Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered federal
prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences
against crime suspects, he announced Friday, reversing Obama
administration efforts to ease penalties for some nonviolent drug 

The drastic shift in criminal justice policy, foreshadowed during
recent weeks, is Mr. Sessions's first major stamp on the Justice
Department, and it highlights several of his top targets: drug
dealing, gun crime and gang violence.

In an eight-paragraph memo, Mr. Sessions returned to the guidance of
President George W. Bush's administration by calling for more uniform
punishments - including mandatory minimum sentences - and instructing
prosecutors to pursue the harshest possible charges. Mr. Sessions's
policy is broader than that of the Bush administration, however, and
how it is carried out will depend more heavily on the judgments of
United States attorneys and assistant attorneys general as they bring

The policy signaled a return to "enforcing the laws that Congress has
passed," Mr. Sessions said Friday at the Justice Department,
characterizing his memo as unique for the leeway it afforded

"They deserve to be un-handcuffed and not micromanaged from
Washington," he said. "It means we are going to meet our
responsibility to enforce the law with judgment and fairness."

But Mr. Sessions's memo also highlighted the gulf between his views on
sentencing and a growing bipartisan push for an overhaul of the
criminal justice system. A major reform bill gained steam in Congress
last year but foundered amid congressional dysfunction and Donald J.
Trump's campaign push for what he termed a restoration of law and
order. Numerous states have also enacted overhauls to their criminal
justice systems in recent years.

Even some within the Republican Party criticized Mr. Sessions. Senator
Mike Lee of Utah labeled an overhaul of the criminal justice system a
conservative issue. "To be tough on crime, we have to be smart on
crime," he wrote on Twitter.

Freedom Partners, an action fund partly funded by the conservative
Koch brothers, advocated changes to the law and pointed to the failed
legislation as a place to start anew.

Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who spoke out last year
against the overhaul legislation, backed the new directive. "I agree
with Attorney General Sessions that law enforcement should side with
the victims of crime rather than its perpetrators," he said.

Mr. Sessions's memo replaced the orders of former Attorney General
Eric H. Holder Jr., who in 2013 took aim at drug sentencing rules. He
encouraged prosecutors to consider the individual circumstances of a
case and to exercise discretion in charging drug crimes. In cases of
nonviolent defendants with insignificant criminal histories and no
connections to criminal organizations, Mr. Holder instructed
prosecutors to omit details about drug quantities from charging
documents so as not to trigger automatically harsh penalties.

Mr. Holder called Mr. Sessions's policy "unwise and ill-informed,"
saying in a statement that it ignored the consensus between Democrats
and Republicans to overhaul the criminal justice system and also
rejected data demonstrating that prosecutions of high-level drug
defendants had risen under his guidance.

"This absurd reversal is driven by voices who have not only been
discredited but until now have been relegated to the fringes of this
debate," he said.

Mr. Sessions's memo explicitly mentioned Mr. Holder's 2013 directive
in a footnote and rescinded it effective immediately.

The policy is most similar to one issued by Attorney General John
Ashcroft in 2003. Then, Mr. Ashcroft outlined six types of "limited
exceptions" in his memo - which ran nearly four times the length of
Mr. Sessions's new guidance, and repeatedly referred to certain
federal statutes. Mr. Sessions, by contrast, provided few specifics.

Instead, he simply directed prosecutors to "carefully consider whether
an exception may be justified." He said any such exceptions to ease
criminal penalties must be documented and approved by United States
attorneys, assistant attorneys general or their designees.

Kevin H. Sharp, who until last month was a federal judge for the
Middle District of Tennessee, warned that a lack of specifics could
hold back prosecutors from exercising discretion when it might be warranted.

"You don't know what the exception is, so it makes it harder to
justify it," he said. "You have to write a memo and run it up for
approval - you're going to get fewer people doing that."

Mr. Sessions has said he believes that critics of mandatory minimum
sentences are ignoring the Justice Department's duty to enforce
federal law.

David Alan Sklansky, a law professor at Stanford University who
specializes in criminal justice, disagreed in part. "Not everybody who
falls within the letter of the criminal prohibition is somebody who
deserves that kind of criminal punishment," he said. "It's not about
excusing people or condoning criminal behavior; it's a question of
trying to figure out how much punishment is enough and at what point
are you piling on needlessly and at great cost."

Mr. Sessions has argued that violent crimes such as murder can be an
outgrowth of drug crime, and has suggested that prosecuting drug
crimes more vigorously will reduce crime more broadly.

"Many violent crimes are driven by drug trafficking and
drug-trafficking organizations," Mr. Sessions, who was a prosecutor at
the height of the 1980s crack epidemic, wrote in a March 8 memo.

Mr. Sklansky said it was unclear how dramatic an impact Mr. Sessions's
new policy may have.

"Prosecutors in the field appropriately pay attention to and try to
follow the directions they receive from Washington," he said. "A
reversal or replacement of the Holder memo will be interpreted by many
prosecutors in the field as a direction to be more aggressive to use
mandatory minimum penalties against low-level nonviolent drug offenders.

"It's hard to know how much of an effect it will have," he added, "but
it will have an effect."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt