ST. GEORGE – Federal prosecutors were ordered by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Friday to pursue the strongest charges possible against suspects. This action rescinds the a policy by previous Justice Department that allowed for an easing of mandatory sentencing on a case-by-case basis.
Critics say Sessions’ move is a step in the wrong direction that will lead to longer prison sentences and increased prison populations. Supporters of the action however, argue it is in response to the uptick in violent crime and will provide prosecutors the tools given to them by Congress to fight it.
“I think it’s a giant step backward,” area attorney Aric Cramer said Friday. “I don’t see anything good about any of it.”
Cramer, who also sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the prior policy, set in place by then Attorney General Eric Holder, allowed federal prosecutors the discretion to consider the unique circumstances from case to case and seek the sentences that were fair and equitable.
The thrust under President Barrack Obama’s administration was to help give low-level offenders, such as non-violent drug offenders, a little bit of a break, Cramer said. The accused went to prison, but not for 10-to-20 years as potentially mandated by federal statute.
“Now that’s been thrown out the window,” he said. “We’re going to fill up our prisons with people who aren’t hardcore criminals.”
The new policy does allow for exceptions in cases approved by a U.S. attorney, assistant attorney general, or a supervisor designated by the U.S. attorney or assistant attorney general. Additionally, the reasons underlying any departure from the policy must be documented in the file.
“There will be circumstances in which good judgment would lead a prosecutor to conclude that a strict application of the above charging policy is not warranted,” Sessions said in a memo made public Friday morning. “In that case, prosecutors should carefully consider whether an exception may be justified.”
The rescinding of Holder’s policy is seen by some critics as a return to what they see as failed drug war policies. The change has long been expected from Sessions, a former federal prosecutor who cut his teeth during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic and who has promised to make combating violence and drugs the Justice Department’s top priority.
Sessions contends a spike in violence in some big cities and the nation’s opioid epidemic show the need for a return to tougher tactics. He foreshadowed the plan early in his tenure, when he signaled his strong support for the federal government’s continued use of private prisons, reversing another Obama directive to phase out their use.
“We know that drugs and crime go hand-in-hand,” Sessions said in a Friday speech. “Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.”
The policy memo says prosecutors should “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” — something more likely to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.
Cramer said the mandatory minimum sentences can be triggered by something like the amount of drugs found on a person. It is a part of the criteria set by Congress that judges are required to apply depending upon the circumstances of the case, thus limiting a judge’s disrection in sentencing.
John Huber, the U.S. Attorney for Utah, said Friday that violent crime across the nation is up by 3 percent. The Justice Department is hoping this is a blip on the radar and not a growing trend as crime overall has been down nationwide, he said.
However, homicides are also up by 10 percent nationwide, he said, and in Utah, according to the latest data, violent crime is up by 13 percent. Of those crimes, aggravated assault rose by 17 percent and rape by 11 percent.
Even in St. George, Huber said, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed 15 firearms cases in the first quarter of 2017.
Mandatory sentencing for crimes on the federal level, as passed by Congress, help in keeping crime down, Huber said.
“Because of sentencing guidelines in the federal system and minimum mandatory penalties and aggressive prosecution and law enforcement – that has played a part in bringing down our crime rates,” he said.
Sessions and the Justice Department do not want to give up hard-fought ground on the war against violent crime, Huber said, and the change in sentencing policy will help in the continuing fight.
“We will not give up ground to the violent criminal,” he said.
Prior to the policy change, some prosecutors felt constrained by the previous directive under Holder, known as “Smart on Crime.” They expressed concern that they’d lose plea bargaining leverage — a key inducement for cooperation — without the ability to more freely pursue mandatory minimum sentences.
However, Utah’s junior senator, Mike Lee, said over Twitter Friday that, “To be tough on crime we have to be smart on crime. That is why criminal justice reform is a conservative issue.”
Lee has sponsored criminal justice reform legislation, such as the “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act” which has enjoyed bipartisan support.
“The bill also reduces certain mandatory minimums, providing judges with greater discretion when determining appropriate sentences, and preserves cooperation incentives to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins,” Lee’s Office said in a 2015 press release.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, has also voiced a contrary opinion on the policy reversal in a statment.
“Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long,” Paul said. “Attorney General Sessions’ new policy will accentuate that injustice. Instead, we should treat our nation’s drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ problem.”
Holder’s 2013 initiative was aimed at encouraging shorter sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and preserving Justice Department resources for more serious and violent criminals.
In a statement Friday, Holder called the reversal “dumb on crime,” saying it would be “financially ruinous” for the department to focus its spending on incarceration rather than preventing and investigating 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 Obama policy shift coincided with U.S. Sentencing Commission changes that made tens of thousands of federal drug prisoners eligible for early release, and a clemency initiative that freed convicts deemed deserving of a second chance.
Combined, those changes led to a steep decline in a federal prison population that now stands at just under 190,000, down from nearly 220,000 in 2013. Nearly half of those inmates are in custody for drug crimes, records show.
Associated Press reporters SADIE GURMAN and ERRIN HAINES WHACK contributed to this story.
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