BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
In a recent two-page memo, largely crafted by Steven H. Cook, a veteran drug warrior, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to have morphed into Harry Anslinger, a primary initiator of the decades-long drug wars. In his directive, Sessions has indicated that he is willing to turn back the clock, spend millions of dollars prosecuting drug offenders, push mandatory minimum sentences, exacerbate racial disparities in the justice system, and swell the nation’s federal prison population. Sessions policy could also prove to be a boon to private prison corporations that have federal contracts; with more arrests and convictions, more cells will be needed.
What is still unclear is how Sessions will deal marijuana -- which he has called a “dangerous drug” – in states that have medical marijuana laws, and those states that have voted to legalize marijuana.
“We’ve got too much complacency about drugs,” Sessions said at a summit in Charleston, West Virginia, on May 11, “Too much talking about recreational drugs. It’s the same thing we used to hear in the eighties. That’s what the pro-drug crowd argued then. But we realize the reality, empirical fact -- neighbors, friends, crime -- that this was not a legitimate thing. So we’re going to reverse this trend. I am committed to it. The president is committed to it. … We’re going to come together as a nation and we’re not going to allow this abuse, this threat to our country to erode our capabilities, and destroy good decent people in our country.”
In a pair of recent articles Will New Drug Czar Revive America's Disastrous Drug Wars and Drug Wars 4.0: From Anslinger to Nixon to Reagan to Trump and Sessions, we speculated about whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions was going to bring back the drug wars.
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned the sweeping criminal charging policy of former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. and directed his federal prosecutors Thursday to charge defendants with the most serious, provable crimes carrying the most severe penalties,” the Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky recently reported.
Holder’s August 2013 memo, “instructed his prosecutors to avoid charging certain defendants with drug offenses that would trigger long mandatory minimum sentences,” Horwitz and Zapotosky pointed out. “Defendants who met a set of criteria such as not belonging to a large-scale drug trafficking organization, gang or cartel, qualified for lesser charges — and in turn less prison time — under Holder’s policy,”
Holder’s policy resulted in a 14% drop in the total federal prison population, which currently stands at over 188,000. Holder responded to Sessions’ policy by saying that it “is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime.”
Arguing that mandatory minimum sentences disproportionally affected minorities, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) pointed out that Sessions’ policy would “accentuate” racial disparities in sentencing.
The memo, sent to more than 5,000 assistant U.S. attorneys across the country specifically instructs them to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.”
“This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us,” the attorney general’s memo says. “By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”
“Attorney General Sessions’ decision to end the Smart on Crime initiative, despite warnings of the impact of reinvigorating the War on Drugs from criminologists and advocates, will again fill federal prisons with people convicted of low-level drug offenses serving excessive sentences. Sessions’ decision to reverse the Obama-era directive that deprioritized the Department of Justice’s use of harsh mandatory minimum sentences in low-level drug cases is a huge misdirection,” Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, said in a statement.
“In recent years the Department of Justice had achieved a substantial population reduction in its overcrowded prison system. The decrease was produced by several policy changes orchestrated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and through the now-rescinded DOJ directive known as Smart on Crime. Reversing this directive will exacerbate prison overcrowding, increase spending and jeopardize the safety of staff and prisoners.
“Research over many decades has demonstrated the deterrent effect of the criminal justice system is a function of the certainty of punishment, not its severity. The new policy shift will have little impact on public safety, while adding exorbitant fiscal and human costs to an already bloated and destructive criminal justice system.”
“Jeff Sessions is pushing federal prosecutors to reverse progress and repeat a failed experiment — the War on Drugs — that has devastated the lives and rights of millions of Americans, ripping apart families and communities and setting millions, particularly Black people and other people of color, on a vicious cycle of incarceration,” Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said in a statement.
“It failed for 40 years, and from the halls of state legislatures to the ballot box, the American people have said with a clear voice that they want common-sense reforms to sentencing policy, and not a return to the draconian policies that have already cost us too much.”