Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed federal prosecutors to pursue the maximum charges against most criminal suspects, reversing Obama-era justice reform policies in a move that will likely lead to an increase in the number of prisoners and the length of prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders. So yeah, now’s a great time to watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th on Netflix.
“This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency,” Sessions wrote in a memo to U.S. attorneys on Thursday night, reported the Associated Press.
The change in policy will probably have the largest effect on non-violent drug offenders, for whom the Obama administration made a point to ease sentences in order to combat overcrowding in prisons. But Sessions argued that there is no such thing as a non-violent drug offender, particularly in light of a rising rate of opioid deaths.
“The opioid and heroin epidemic is a contributor to the recent surge of violent crime in America,” Sessions said in a speech Thursday. “Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.”
Under this new policy, prosecutors are urged to look for the most serious offenses provable, in many cases triggering mandatory minimum sentences, thereby limiting the sentencing options of judges.
The big change here is that under the Obama-era policy, prosecutors could, in certain circumstances, omit drug quantities from their court documents, in order to trigger shorter sentences for drug offenders who weren’t accused of violent crimes. Civil rights advocates praised the move for keeping nonviolent drug dealers from getting similar sentences as murderers and rapists.
But Sessions argued that this led to inconsistencies across the country in the way that drug offenders were charged, and that it decreased prosecutors’ leverage during plea bargaining.
This new policy is likely to be a boon for private prisons, reported The Washington Post. Previously, deputy attorney general Sally Yates had ordered the Justice Department to stop using private prisons for federal inmates, due to declining inmate numbers. Sessions quickly reversed that directive upon taking office.