Attorney general sparks fear with push for harsh sentences

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The ACLU says Attorney General Jeff Sessions is "repeating a failed experiment" by encouraging prosecutors to pursue tougher charges against most suspects.

Holder issued his own memo in August 2013 instructing prosecutors to avoid drug charges that carry long mandatory minimum sentences if the defendants meet certain criteria, including not being associated with a gang or cartel, according to The Washington Post. With the new guidelines, federal prosecutors are now required to seek the most severe charges carrying the most severe punishment possible, a stark difference from the more cautious, forgiving guidelines previously in place. In some cases, mandatory minimum and recidivist enhancements statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution. During remarks at the Sergeants Benevolent Association Awards presentation in New York City on Friday, Sessions said his new approach is simply the "right and moral thing to do", noting upticks in violent crime in several cities across the USA and linking those surges to drugs.

The move is an unmistakable undoing of Obama administration criminal justice policies that aimed to ease overcrowding in federal prisons and contributed to a national rethinking of how drug criminals were prosecuted and sentenced.

But Sessions' new charging policy, outlined in a two-page memo and sent to more than 5,000 assistant USA attorneys across the country and all assistant attorneys general in Washington, orders prosecutors to "charge and purse the most serious, readily provable offense" and rescinds Holder's policy immediately. In doing so, Sessions upholds the strict anti-drug policy laid out by the president.

"I trust our prosecutors in the field to make good judgments", he said.

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Sessions attributes the need for a change in drug policy to the nation's opioid epidemic and increased violence in big cities. Even while in the Senate, Sessions repeatedly asserted that eliminating mandatory minimums weakened the ability of law enforcement to protect the public. Prosecutors must now "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense".

The Attorney General released harsh new directives on Friday that will target the most marginalized. Sessions was a key hold out on a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill in the Senate that would have cut back mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses. The memo was an attempt at mercy in order to lessen the long-term consequences for non-violent, low-level drug offenders. "The largest increase in murder since 1968 and we know that drugs and crime go hand-in-hand, they just do, the facts prove that so", Sessions said.

A Judiciary Committee spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new administration policy or the status of the sentencing overhaul effort.

The goal of Holder's policy was to begin to roll back the war on drugs, which critics pointed out disproportionately impacted people of color, devastating millions of lives and contributing to America having a mass incarceration epidemic.