Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Friday that he has directed his federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe penalties possible, including mandatory minimum sentences, in his first step toward a return to the war on drugs of the 1980s and 1990s that resulted in long sentences for many minority defendants and packed U.S. prisons.

Civil rights groups, Republican lawmakers and even the conservative Koch brothers issued swift condemnations of the policy, saying that Sessions was taking the nation backward. Aggressive prosecutors, however, are likely to embrace the measure as giving them more tools to do their jobs.

In the later years of the Obama administration, a bipartisan consensus emerged on Capitol Hill for sentencing reform legislation, which Sessions opposed and successfully worked to derail.

In a two-page memo to federal prosecutors across the country, Sessions overturned former attorney general Eric H. Holder’s sweeping criminal charging policy that instructed his prosecutors to avoid charging certain defendants with offenses that would trigger long mandatory minimum sentences. In its place, Sessions told his more than 5,000 assistant U.S. attorneys to charge defendants with the most serious crimes, carrying the toughest 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.”

Holder, who launched his new charging orders in August 2013, called the Sessions policy “an unwise and ill-informed decision” that “will take this nation back to a discredited past.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky

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