Federal prosecutors directed to pursue stronger punishments, decried as ‘a giant step backward’

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.

File: In this March 16, 2016 file photo, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, left, confers with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. on Capitol Hill in Washington. Hopes for overhauling the nation’s criminal justice system have faded in Congress this year, undercut by a rash of summer shootings involving police and the pressure of election-year politics. Republicans, including Cornyn and Lee, had joined forces with Democrats in hopes of revising the 1980s and ‘90s-era federal “tough on crime” laws by reducing some mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders and giving judges greater discretion in sentencing. The goal is to reduce overcrowding in the nation’s prisons and save taxpayer dollars. | AP file photo/Scott Applewhite; St. George News.com

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.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.


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  • Pheo May 13, 2017 at 5:38 pm

    If you want to call a one-year increase “an uptick in violent crime”, I guess you are technically correct. However, that belies the fact that violent crime rates have dropped dramatically in the past 30 years. Crime did increase from 2014 to 2015, but it dropped between 2012 and 2015.

    What should we make of this? A one-year increase does not constitute a trend. To attempt to dramatically increase our prison population in the absence of definitive evidence is just dumb and expensive. Glad to see several conservatives in your article that haven’t fallen for the tough-on-crime rhetoric.

  • Chris May 13, 2017 at 5:41 pm

    Jeff Sessions is nothing more than Alabama white trash.

    • mesaman May 13, 2017 at 9:35 pm

      Chris is nothing more than local white trash.

    • 42214 May 14, 2017 at 3:43 pm

      Why? Because he doesn’t condone drug abuse like you.

    • Henry May 15, 2017 at 11:45 am

      Racial slurs are an indication of a deficient vocabulary, and vocabulary is an indication of knowledge, i.e. if you can’t articulate, you don’t read much, and if you don’t read, you don’t know much. Of course, we already know that you don’t know anything.

  • Henry May 13, 2017 at 9:00 pm

    St George News : are you now allowing racial slurs like the previous commenter used, in referring to the U.S. Attorney General?

    If so, are you consistent in allowing racial slurs against all groups? For instance, could one say “the previous U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, is nothing more than a New York …? If not, why not?
    Ed. ellipsis.

    • Joyce Kuzmanic May 15, 2017 at 6:56 am

      Henry, it would be nice to see a world of no name-calling, wouldn’t it? That is one of the less lovely aspects of free speech. Sanitizing comments entirely is both an untenable proposition and an inappropriate constraint on expression. That said, there are some words that are universally unacceptable and subject to our redaction, such as the one you attempted to use interspersed with asterisks and such.
      Thanks for the question,

      Joyce Kuzmanic
      Editor in Chief

      • Henry May 15, 2017 at 11:42 am

        Thank you for the clarification, Joyce. Sometimes drawing a parallel might show the bigots how narrow-minded they are. I’ll try to do so without invoking the particularly incendiary words and drawing the infamous “Ed. ellipsis”. (Grin)

  • utahdiablo May 13, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    Real Law and Order is here….you do the crime, your gonna do the time …*
    Ed. ellipsis: …*

    • Chris May 13, 2017 at 10:10 pm

      if ignorance of the English language (“your” vs. “you’re”) was a crime, you’d be doing hard time.

      • 42214 May 14, 2017 at 2:28 pm

        There goes Cris, our spell check and word perfect app.

        • Chris May 14, 2017 at 3:15 pm

          spelling is an indication of literacy, and literacy is an indication of knowledge, i.e. if you can’t spell, you don’t read much, and if you don’t read, you don’t know much. Of course, we already know that you don’t know anything.

          • 42214 May 14, 2017 at 6:56 pm

            Cris, I like how you assume to speak for “we”. You assume way too much and make outrageous claims based on false assumptions. You try to bully your way through debate by claiming dominion and control over facts. You and “Theone” are cut from the same cloth. Only problem is your cloth is just an old dirty rag.

          • 42214 May 16, 2017 at 11:35 pm

            Cris, it’s been 3 days, where you go boy? Off reading your dictionary and punctuation book? “We” all know as you would say. How many times you get stuffed in a trash can in Jr High cause you were such a dork?

    • ladybugavenger May 14, 2017 at 6:53 am

      Unless you are FLDS and rip tax paying Utahns off for millions of dollars in food stamp fraud…..then it’s just a visit to jail and a $100 fine. Ridiculous isn’t it?

      • Chris May 14, 2017 at 12:30 pm

        by your own admission, you used to be on government assistance ripping off Utah taxpayers.

        • ladybugavenger May 14, 2017 at 5:41 pm

          Thank you for feeding me and my kids.
          I was not “ripping you off” I did not take other people’s food stamps and by food and run a store and get a new car. We ate. You want your money back? Get it from the father that did not pay child support. 🙂

          • 42214 May 14, 2017 at 8:04 pm

            Ladybug, Cris is an arrogant fool. I found throughout my life that nobody was as smart as they thought they were and Cris is no exemption. You have my respect for providing for your kids without the support of a responsible father.

          • 42214 May 14, 2017 at 8:06 pm

            I forgot to add in my post below, Happy Mother’s Day Bug.

          • ladybugavenger May 15, 2017 at 9:17 am

            Thank you 42214! Have a blessed day 🙂

          • ladybugavenger May 15, 2017 at 9:36 am

            I learned you don’t need much to survive in this world, food is a need, a roof over your head is a blessing that no one should take for granted and clothes are a need and there are places to get free clothes. If you have a roof over your head you’re doing better than many and everyone just needs to stop complaining about this person has more than that person and start appreciating what you do have.

            When we were homeless my kids and I were the strongest weve ever been, we had love and we had eachother, when we got a place, we were torn apart by my mom and la County DCFS and she took them at age 12 (girl) and 14 (boy) on false reports and allegations (the allegations kept growing and growing) it started as I made them write sentences of what they did wrong and then what they are going to do to correct it …..it ended with neglect and physical abuse….that is when they became teenage pregnancy and a meth addict statistic….now there’s part of my life you didn’t know. The story is bigger than that and includes my husband working for la County and reporting embezzlement. Retaliation? Oh hell yes!!!! And it destroyed 2 kids and my children’s blood is on a lot of people’s hands!!!! May God forgive them all for what they have done…..LA County ex sheriff led baca being convicted and sentenced this week is a sweet victory for me since the sherrifffs dept was involved in terrorizing us. What would really bring me peace and comfort is if former la County board of supervisor Don Knabe had been arrested. Oh yes, it would be quite the box office movie of the year!

            May my children heel from the evil placed upon them and this mom is going to be there for them every step of the way

          • ladybugavenger May 15, 2017 at 10:00 am

            After 2 years of contacting FBI and documenting our moves and what was happening they suggested we move- (I said, no! They need to stop and I ain’t moving without my kids. It didn’t take long to find my kids and move….because After 2 1/2 years of court battles and exposing every single lie (the more I was retaliated on and was told you will never ever get your kids back- by a social worker…well my kids ran away from foster care, DCFS didn’t know where they were. I told them, you all suck, you’re the abusers, and you’re the neglect. I’ll find them! On the way home from court, I told my husband turn here, and there was my son, I found my son at a park at 16, 5ft 10 and 120 lbs high on meth. It took 2 weeks but he came to my house and I hid him for months then DCFS knocked on my door and I said- you can’t have him! You can’t! You all created a teenage pregnancy and a meth addict! I never neglected my kids, even when they weren’t in my care I was fighting for them! I’m keeping him from meth! She left. The social worker called him and they made an appt for a week later. We all moved to Utah and kept him safe until he was 18. Then he worked with me at Walmart and got hooked on meth again and I’ve told that rest of that story.

            My daughter, I found her st 15, she was already pregnant, I immediately drove her to Utah to her biological father and he took care of her. And that’s why I moved to Utah because my daughter was here and I wanted to be close to her if everything blew up. That’s why we chose Utah ;both my kids were born in Utah , (oh and they have 2 different fathers)

            My daughter is 21 now and she still struggles a lot with what happened. We all struggle. It something that doesn’t go away. I got paranoia from the terrorizing of la County sheriffs and all the corruption and lies. I can only imagine what my 21 and. 23 year old are going through. I pray everyday for there healing.

            That’s just a sneak preview, of course it lacks full detail and probably bad grammar and punctuation. And the timeline may be off as I’m not looking at documents (I have a lot of documents (4 + feet high of documents)

            My point: everyone just appreciate your loved ones, get away from people that hurt you (you can’t change people) and have joy, smile, be happy, and appreciate everything you have and don’t focus on what you don’t have.

            Everyone have a blessed day!

          • ladybugavenger May 15, 2017 at 10:08 am

            Probably closer to 3 ft of documents not 4 because someone came in our motel room once in 2008 and stole some documents….documents to support my husbands retaliation by LA County. Yes, they spent tax payers money to break in our motel room and steal documents and terrorize us with guns and the sheriffs. One day I’ll tell you about my 911 call on or about October 4th 2008….I will never figure it all out!

          • ladybugavenger May 15, 2017 at 10:13 am

            You see, life’s too short to be mean to people. Even family, get away if they are hurting you.

            Enjoy life! There is evil in this world but light outshines darkness. Be the light and darkness will flee.

            We survived something that was pure evil. 2 against hundreds of people and 13 departments in LA County….. you can survive what you are going through…. be supportive to people struggling and give them a smile, it will give them the light they need to come out of the dark. I will never forget the people that prayed for us and that one wave that changed everything.

            Be the light!

      • ladybugavenger May 15, 2017 at 10:43 am

        What do my kids say about me? They say, my mom is the strongest woman I know, she is the best mom in the world. It doesn’t get any better than that ❤️❤️❤️

  • 42214 May 14, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    I’d like to see us adopt Indonesia’s drug laws and policies. It would cut down on recidivism. We could appoint the Prez of the Philippines our drug czar.

  • ladybugavenger May 15, 2017 at 11:18 am

    Back to your comment cris: I received Utah benefits from 1994-1999. I then moved to California with my mom. Then back to Utah from 2011-2016 and received no benefits from the state but I paid my taxes like a good little bug. Oh look at that timeline. Looks like I I paid my debt to Utah. Have a blessed day and be kind you never know the grief and pain someone is going through.

  • ladybugavenger May 15, 2017 at 11:27 am

    So people, you can lift someone up and give that wave and a smile or you can be that person that makes one comment to a person and they go commit suicide-I would think, you wouldn’t want that blood on your hands. So Chris, which person do you want to be? You want to lift people up or do you want to destroy them and get blood on your hands?

  • jaybird May 15, 2017 at 7:50 pm

    Notice Mike Lee in one of the piks? It’s code for how backward this state is in its diversity. All these old white guys think making America great again is the same as taking us back to when women’s place was in the kitchen and blacks couldnt vote. If you keep them in jail, they are enslaved. Trump’s administration doesn’t care for anything but what works for them rich fat cats who can buy their way out of trouble.

    • 42214 May 15, 2017 at 8:48 pm

      Don’t do the crime if you can’t serve the time.

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