[5/13/17] In a memo to staff, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” — a move that marks a significant reversal of Obama-era policies on low-level drug crimes.
The two-page memo, which was publicly released Friday, lays out a policy of strict enforcement that rolls back the comparatively lenient stance established by Eric Holder, one of Sessions’ predecessors under President Barack Obama.
“This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency. This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us,” Sessions told thousands of assistant U.S. attorneys in the memo. “By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”
He elaborated on the memo in a brief speech to the Sergeants Benevolent Association of New York City, which honored him with an award Friday in Washington, D.C.
“Charging and sentencing recommendations are bedrock responsibilities of any prosecutor. And I trust our prosecutors in the field to make good judgments,” Sessions said. “They deserve to be unhandcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington.”
Holder had asked prosecutors to avoid slapping nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carried mandatory minimum sentences, practices that, as NPR’s Tamara Keith explains, “give judges and prosecutors little discretion over the length of a prison term if a suspect is convicted.” Holder’s recommendation had been aimed partly at helping reduce burgeoning prison populations in the U.S.
Now, if prosecutors wish to pursue lesser charges for these low-level crimes, they will need to obtain approval for the exception from a U.S. attorney, assistant attorney general or another supervisor.
But in his speech Friday, Sessions asserted that the policy change is aimed not at low-level drug users, but rather drug dealers and traffickers.