Attorney General Jeff Sessions Issues Sweeping New Criminal Charging Policy

Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned the sweeping criminal charging policy of former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. and directed his federal prosecutors Thursday to charge defendants with the most serious, provable crimes carrying the most severe penalties.

In a speech Friday, Sessions said the move was meant to ensure that prosecutors would be “un-handcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington” as they worked to bring the most significant cases possible.

“We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and simple,” Sessions said. “If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way, we will not be willfully blind to your misconduct.”

The Holder memo, issued in August 2013, instructed his prosecutors to avoid charging certain defendants with drug offenses that would trigger long mandatory minimum sentences. Defendants who met a set of criteria such as not belonging to a large-scale drug trafficking organization, gang or cartel, qualified for lesser charges — and in turn less prison time — under Holder’s policy.

Civil liberties advocates at the time praised the move as appropriately merciful — potentially preventing people from facing lifelong penalties for crimes that did not warrant such a punishment. But Sessions’s new charging policy, outlined in a two-page memo and sent to more than 5,000 assistant U.S. attorneys across the country and all assistant attorneys general in Washington, orders prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” and rescinds Holder’s policy immediately.

Sessions said prosecutors would have discretion to avoid sentences “that would result in an injustice,” but his message was clear: His Justice Department will be tougher on drug offenders than its predecessor.

“These are not low-level drug offenders we, in the federal courts, are focusing on,” Sessions said. “These are drug dealers, and you drug dealers are going to prison.”

The Sessions memo marks the first significant criminal justice effort by the Trump administration to bring back the toughest practices of the drug war, which had fallen out of favor in recent years with a bipartisan movement to undo the damaging effects of mass incarceration.

“Drug trafficking is an inherently dangerous and violent business,” Sessions said. “If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it with the barrel of a gun.”

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SOURCE: Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky  
The Washington Post