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Justice Department directs federal prosecutors to charge maximum sentences

14 May 2017

The most "serious" crimes are determined by which offenses carry the longest sentences, according to guidelines.

In a two-page note to federal prosecutors, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed course from the previous Obama administration and told the nation's 94 U.S. attorneys to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense". "Charge-bargaining", whereby prosecutors agree to charge defendants with less harsh sentencing guidelines in exchange for cooperating with the authorities in other investigation, is a powerful "carrot" available to some state prosecutors.

The Trump administration called for tougher charges and longer prison time for criminals in a move to return to strict enforcement of federal sentencing rules, according to a memo the U.S. Department of Justice released on Friday.

Now, if prosecutors wish to pursue lesser charges for these low-level crimes, they will need to obtain approval for the exception from a USA attorney, assistant attorney general or another supervisor.

Some prosecutors are praising Attorney General Jeff Sessions' new policy urging them to charge the most serious crimes against suspects.

Freedom Partners, an organization partially funded by the Koch brothers, does not approve of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsDeputy AG sees no need for special prosecutor on Russian Federation: report Robert Gates on Comey: Trump should have had his "ducks in a row" Dem on Comey firing: "I've got real concerns about a coverup" MORE's memo overturning the criminal sentencing policy of the previous administration.

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Sessions says a spike in violence in some big cities and the nation's opioid epidemic show the need for a return to tougher tactics.

Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Campaign for Smart Justice, said Sessions is pushing federal prosecutors to repeat a failed experiment: the war on drugs.

"This is a disastrous move that will increase the prison population, exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and do nothing to reduce drug use or increase public safety", Michael Collins, deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement emailed to NPR.

Most controversially, the Holder Memo forbade federal prosecutors from pursuing charges that would trigger mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain categories of drug offenders, even when prosecutors felt those charges were justified by the facts. The memo itself cites the need to reserve mandatory minimum sentences for the highest level of drug offenders and the prosecutor's role in doing so given federal case law that requires judges follow mandatory minimums enacted by Congress when criminals are convicted under those statutes. It is dumb on crime.

"It is an ideologically cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety", Holder said.

The new policy is expected to lead to more federal prosecutions and an increase in the federal prison population. Almost half of those inmates are in custody for drug crimes, records show.

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All of those charging factors are now gone under Sessions' reign and not surprising, as he has previously telegraphed his desire to prosecute more federal cases generally.

Holly Harris, head of the bipartisan sentencing reform organization U.S. Justice Action Network, said reform efforts have taken hold even in deep-red conservative states where Republicans dominate.

Sessions and other Justice Department officials argue Holder's approach sidestepped federal laws that impose such sentences and created inconsistency across the country in the way defendants are punished.

Sessions' memo to USA attorneys is an undoing of Obama-era policies that aimed to ease federal prison overcrowding and show lenience to nonviolent, lower-level drug offenders.

Sessions announced the move in a policy memo sent to USA attorneys.

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Justice Department directs federal prosecutors to charge maximum sentences