Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he has rescinded the prior Department of Justice policies of Attorney General Eric Holder on sentencing and charging in drug cases. Under Attorney Generals Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, both reversed prior drug policies which saw many minorities and others going to prison for decades for low level, non-violent drug involvement due to mandatory minimum sentences. Under Attorney General Holder, the Department of Justice concentrated more efforts and resources on drug defendants who were violent and/or had substantial involvement with drug trafficking. Sessions, known as the law and order Attorney General, has saw fit to turn back the progress seen in the Eric Holder era.
Sessions announced last week that he intends for all U. S. attorneys to charge the most serious crimes and seek the highest penalties for all drug defendants in federal courts. Mandatory minimums and lengthy sentences began in the 1980’s to combat the crack cocaine epidemic. After 30 years since the original law and order mandatory minimums of the Regan era sought to increase drug sentences, there is still an epidemic of drugs—known currently as the opioid epidemic. In the prior mandatory minimum era, there were persons with very low drug involvement who spent decades in jail for having very small amounts of drugs in their possession and with no prior criminal convictions, due to mandatory maximum minimums.
Sessions declared the need for a change in policy due to an increase in crime; in fact, crime has been decreasing and is at its lowest in many years. And while many national prosecutors praise Sessions and the new policy, others who seek criminal justice reform abhor the new policy, as it will simply fill up jails. And maybe that’s exactly what Sessions wants to do. Private prisons are a high priority for those who earn big bucks for building and maintaining private prisons.
What is needed today to curtail drug use and abuse is the same thing that was needed during the 1980’s. Drug treatment and prevention is a key to decreasing the drug problem in the U.S. Opponents to the increased drug sentences and in favor of overall criminal justice reform include progressives and conservatives alike. The Charles Koch Institute found that the majority of Trump voters even contend that criminal justice reform is important with its findings:
“A poll last month by the conservative Charles Koch Institute found that 81 percent of Trump voters think criminal justice reform is “very important,” and 63 percent said judges should have the freedom to assign forms of punishments other than prison, which is the opposite of what mandatory-minimum sentences require.”
It will be interesting to note if the new policy will target mainly minorities, as in the past or include individuals across the country involved in the “new” opioid drug epidemic. There is a provision in the new drug policy that will allow for prosecutors to use their judgment. As a former prosecutor, I know that discretion is rarely allowed when a policy calls for the highest sentences and charges.
I suspect that as in the past, the majority of those getting arrested, charged and sent to prison will be people of color. Studies have found that minorities and whites use drugs at or about the same rate. Yet, prisons overflow with people of color. African Americans are disproportionately targeted and sent to prison for lengthy jail sentences in the mandatory-minimum era. That was one of the underlying reasons why Attorney General Eric Holder sought to change the policies.
The new war on drugs, a la Sessions style, should have everyone concerned. And this time around unlike the 1980’s Regan era, everyone who knows someone with a drug problem should have reason for concern. The new policy will likely affect John and Jamal.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. She often appears on MSNBC, PBS, CBS News, Al Jazeera and Fox 5 DC.