Attorney General Jess Sessions looks to lengthen sentences for drug possession

Luke Dalessandro, Politics Editor

Incumbent Head of the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is acting with punity in one of his first major acts on drug policy as acting Attorney General. Sessions has reversed an Obama era Justice Department policy that facilitated prosecutors often filing drug charges in a manner which often avoided triggering mandatory minimum sentences mandated for drug related crimes. The 2013 directive from former Attorney General Eric Holder effectively allowed and instructed federal prosecutors to leave ambiguous the quantities of drugs involved in a drug crime when charging non violent drug offenders. Mandatory minimum sentences were adopted in the U.S with the intent of ascertaining harsher sentences for high level drug traffickers. The passing of the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1988, allowed mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, among them marijuana. However, in spite of intent, typical mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes became 5-10 years, notwithstanding many being non-violent or low level offenders. The 2013 directive from Holder attempted to allow low-level or non-violent drug offenders to avoid imposition of mandatory minimum sentences. After his 2013 introduction of the policy in a statement, Holder proclaimed, “We must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is, in too many ways, broken. And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and rehabilitate – not merely to warehouse and forget.” In defense and explication of the directive Holder continues to say, “It is clear that too many Americans go to prisons for far too long, and no truly good law enforcement reason.” manmincaseload

The Attorney General does have a certain level of power as to altering drug policy on their own, which Holder previously utilized, and incumbent Sessions now does. They can give instructions to federal prosecutors as to how they should write their criminal complaints, the basis for Holder’s now reversed 2013 directive. In a memo released by Sessions to federal prosecutors nationwide, Sessions asserted the department policy in all future cases will revert to filing the most punitive charge, based on sentencing, against a defendant under provable facts. In his directive, Sessions went on to say, “It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” Aside from increased punitive action levied against perpetrators of drug crimes, the attorney general defended the directive by implicating that any decision to lessen mandatory minimum sentences should come from Congressionally approved legislation, as opposed to being unilaterally implemented by the executive branch.

However Brett Tolman, a U.S Attorney for Utah under then incumbent president George W. Bush, appeared to expect a shift in the DoJ’s drug policy, saying in a statement anticipating a policy change, “The Justice Department expected shift to prosecuting and incarcerating more offenders, including low level and drug offenders, is an ineffective way to protect public safety.” While Sessions’ reversing of the 2013 directive increases the occurrence of mandatory minimum sentences for those tried and convicted of drug crimes, he has left it in part ambiguous whether the attorney general will act against state legalization of recreational marijuana use. While both recreational and medical marijuana are prohibited according to federal law, a multitude of states have legalized the substances according to state law. Currently over half of U.S states have legalized marijuana for medical use, while California, Alaska, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Maine, and Massachusetts have legalized recreational possession and distribution of marijuana with age restrictions. On the campaign trail, Trump advocated for not enforcing federal law on recreational marijuana, proclaiming, “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state by state.” Summarily, Sessions’ shifting of the DoJ position on drug policy largely echoes his historical statements on the issue. During a Senate drug hearing in April 2016, Sessions said that, “We need grown ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s in fact a very real danger.” Sessions went on to conclude, “Send that message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”