Sessions Wants More People in Prison
On Friday, May 12, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a directive that told prosecutors to push for the most severe charges available when it comes to drug cases. The directive (dated May 10) got somewhat lost in the flood of other national news in the past week. But now justice reform advocates and others are taking a more careful look in order to figure out what kind of affect on sentencing and incarceration reform Session’s new dictum might have.
(You can find Sessions’ sentencing memo here.)
Some officials in the state of New Mexico seem to be particularly worried about how Sessions’ new order will affect, well, drug mules. For instance, in regional but excellent story for the Sante Fe Reporter, Aaron Cantú wrote about the state’s unusually high number of “drug mule” cases that usually involve nonviolent, low level drug offenders, which it seems “were among those singled out in a memo issued by former attorney general Eric Holder in August 2013.”
According to federal public defender, John Butcher, after Holder’s memo, drug mule cases involving low-level minimum participants with minor records, still involved prison terms, but nobody “threw the book at them” anymore, Butcher said.
Holder’s directive encouraged prosecutors not to charge such low level people with crimes that could trigger stiff mandatory minimum sentences, which in turn required judges to send defendants to prison for a certain number predetermined number of years, regardless of mitigating factors.
Now, with the new pressure on prosecutors by Sessions to go for the highest charges, judges may be forced to sentence those same low-level offenders holding five milligrams of cocaine to a minimum of 10 years in prison for a first offense, according to Butcher.
Right on Crime Thinks Sessions is Wrong
Marc A. Levin, the policy director for the conservative criminal justice reform group, Right on Crime, which has been a potent force in bi-partisan efforts to reduce incarceration rates, and to reform overly aggressive sentencing schemes, doesn’t think the Sessions memo will do as much damage as some people fear. He feels that, with 30 states as least enacting some kind of significant reform, the momentum, even in traditionally law-and-order states— like Louisiana, Georgia, Texas and South Carolina—is too great.
“There was a lot of speculation that with the rhetoric from the presidential campaign, there would be a drop in momentum, but we haven’t seen that,” Levin told New York Times reporter, Richard A. Oppel Jr. this week. “There have been so many successes in the last several years, particularly in conservative states, that it continues to fuel other states to act.”
Unsurprisingly, many other justice reform advocacy groups made strong statements against Sessions’ move. The ACLU, for one, came out swinging.
“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…particularly Black people and other people of color, on a vicious cycle of incarceration,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice.
“With overall crime rates at historic lows, it is clear that this type of one-dimensional criminal justice system that directs prosecutors to give unnecessarily long and unfairly harsh sentences to people whose behavior does not call for it did not work. It failed for 40 years,” Ofer said. And the American people have indicated they don’t want “a return to the draconian policies that have already cost us too much.”
What About California?
California Senator Kamala Harris, who said she worked in the Alameda County district attorney’s office at the height of the crack epidemic, brought up the issue early this week at the Center for American Progress’ Ideas Conference in Washington, D.C., where she was a popular featured speaker.
“I saw the War on Drugs up close,” she said, “and, let me tell you, [it] was an abject failure. It offered taxpayers a bad return on investment. It was bad for public safety. It was bad for budgets and our economy. And it was bad for people of color and those struggling to make ends meet.”
Xavier Becerra, the state’s attorney general, said he was “disappointed and disturbed” by the new federal sentencing guidelines laid out by Sessions, “that instruct prosecutors to seek the harshest possible punishments for drug offenders.” Those guidelines, he pointed out, stand juxtaposed to bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill to overhaul the criminal justice system, a program backed by big donors including liberal George Soros and the conservative-libertarian Charles and David Koch.
The AG mentioned that the guidelines are “especially troubling in California,” one of eight states where voters have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
“This is the 21st century. We should not be talking about criminalizing marijuana. We should be talking about regulating marijuana,” Becerra said. “I think it’s just a shame that we would think the best way to address serious violent crime would be to start going after folks for small quantities of marijuana.”
The Legislature Fights Back
California lawmakers quietly made their own indirect statement this week when the state’s Senate approved SB 180, which is nicknamed the Repeal Ineffective Sentencing (RISE) Act.
The bill, sponsored by democratic Sens. Holly Mitchell and Ricardo Lara, eliminates a particular drug-related sentencing enhancement that has been enshrined in California law.
The enhancement is as follows: when someone is arrested for a drug sale, or possession for sale, if that someone has a previous felony convictions on similar charges, their sentences can be doubled or even tripled.
Prop 57 addressed such enhancements for those spending time in prison.
SB 180 would eliminate the automatic enhancements for those serving their sentences in the state’s jails, except if the defendant is charged with getting kids into the trade.
Even though the RISE Act has been in the works for some time, during floor discussion, supporters of SB 180 reportedly mentioned Sessions’ recent call for tougher drug sentencing on the federal level as a serious concern.
So Does the U.S. Congress
Meanwhile, in the U.S. Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers directly pushed back against Sessions’ memo by introducing legislation to give federal judges more discretion to impose lower sentences, reports the Washington Post.
“Mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately affect minorities and low-income communities, while doing little to keep us safe and turning mistakes into tragedies,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who co-sponsored the bill said. “As this legislation demonstrates, Congress can come together in a bipartisan fashion to change these laws.”
Leahy and Paul introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) are introducing a companion bill in the House.