A week after the release of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directive ordering federal prosecutors nationwide to seek the longest possible sentences, for the “most serious, readily provable offense,” a group of current and former state and local prosecutors from around the nation released an open letter to Sessions expressing “grave concerns” with the directive.
Sessions, who has already made it clear that he intends to be an activist head of the U.S. Department of Justice, used his memo to retroactively erase ex-attorney general Eric Holder’s 2013 policy eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.
Thus far, these activist moves by the AG have drawn praise from a few law-and-order quarters.
Yet, his newest lock-’em-up directive in particular has drawn vigorous criticism that spans the political spectrum. For instance, in addition to the ACLU, and people like Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond—who called Sessions’ newest directive “discriminatory” and said the charging policy previously “destroyed” families—those at the Texas-located Right on Crime, and the conservative-leaning Cato Institute, which is prominently funded by, among others, Charles Koch, expressed equal alarm.
Most recently, Sessions has drawn a surprising amount of push back from prosecutors all over the nation.
The 30 prosecutors, whose letter was released on Friday, May 19, are the latest on the list of those who have expressed misgivings about Sessions’ prosecutorial directive.
The Illusion of Safety
“The Attorney General’s directive marks an unnecessary and unfortunate return to past ‘tough on crime’ practices that we now know simply don’t enhance or promote the safety of our communities,” wrote the prosecutors, whose names include, in California, Los Angeles County City Attorney Mike Feurer, former LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti, and San Francisco DA, George Gascon.
Along with the Californians, the letter was also signed by such district attorneys as Cyrus Vance (Manhattan), Kim Ogg (Houston), Mark Dupree (Kansas City), George Gascon (San Francisco), Sherry Boston (Atlanta), and Beth McCann (Denver), along with attorneys general Karl Racine (Washington, D.C.), Ellen Rosenblum (Oregon) and TJ Donovan (Vermont)—and more.
“There is no empirical evidence to suggest that increases in sentences, particularly
for low-level offenses, decrease the crime rate,” the prosecutors wrote. “Instead, we know that in many instances, contact with the justice system exacerbates the likelihood of future criminal conduct, and that the deterrent effect of long-term prison sentences is questionable at best.”
Prosecutors and Cops
The prosecutors invoked the similarly-themed letter sent in February to Sessions from 175 law enforcement leaders, including such high-profile people as the LAPD’s Charlie Beck, and the former chief of both the LAPD and the NYPD, Bill Bratton.
The cop leaders’ 5-point agenda for “Fighting Crime and Strengthening Criminal Justice (which we reported on here) began with the strong suggestion that the Trump administration “prioritize fighting violent crime,” instead of “over-resourcing efforts to fight lower-level drug crimes and non-violent crimes.”
Judging by the recent directive, it does not appear that Mr. Sessions listened.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Miriam Krinsky, who is the executive director for the newly-launched Fair and Just Prosecution, was one of those who helped to put together the prosecutors’ letter, which she said is indicative of “a trend among a new wave of prosecutors nationwide” who are rejecting “excessively punitive policies in favor of data-driven and sensible approaches to improve public safety.”
The past few decades, Krinsky said, “have demonstrated that harsh sentences, especially for low level drug offenders “do not deter crime and instead disproportionately impact people of color and fill our jails with individuals struggling with mental illness, drug addiction or poverty.”
Dan Satterberg, who is the prosecuting attorney for King County, Washington, the 13th most populous county in the nation, put it another way.
“Our justice system isn’t suffering from sentences that are too short,” he said, “but rather from inequities that have resulted in a loss of confidence and trust among communities most impacted by crime.”
The Attorneys General Speak out
Interestingly, the 30 prosecutors who signed last Friday’s letter joined another high profile list of 14 state attorneys general who put out their own letter to Sessions last Thursday, asking him to rescind the criminal charging guidance he sent to federal prosecutors.
“While this policy may seem on the surface to be tough on crime, there is strong data suggesting that it is neither smart on crime nor fair on justice,” wrote the 14 state AGs—including Eric T. Schneiderman of New York, Karl A. Racine of the District of Columbia, and Xavier Becerra, of California.
At the letter’s end, the state AGs requested a meeting with Sessions and his deputies “to present more evidence and discuss further why we feel it is in everyone’s best interest to be smart and fair about crime.”
No word yet as to whether or not Mr. Sessions has responded to their request.
Photo by U.S. Government – United States Dept. of Justice