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More Prison Time: Harsher Sentence Guidelines Announced Today

 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions today announced that he is directing federal prosecutors to vigorously charge defendants under existing federal law. This is a departure from the Obama administration, under the direction of AG Holder, and deserves some discussion. This article will focus on federal drug crimes and sentencing issues.

Since the late 18th Century, the US Government has codified mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses. In the mid-20th Century these mandatory minimum sentences started applying to controlled substance offenses. During the Nixon administration, however, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 was codified. This did away with the vast majority of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses. The law was passed to give more flexible and effective system of punishment and deterrence. Unfortunately this began to change during the 1980’s and Regan’s war on drugs. This had the effect of getting away from the rehabilitative nature of non-mandatory sentencing and applying a more punitive approach.

The Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1987 was the mechanism used to produce more punitive sentences. Most people believe that this was in response to the crack epidemic that was spreading across the United States. The law began treating crack cocaine and powder cocaine much differently. In fact, the law produced what is commonly known as the “100 to 1” ratio; in other words, 500 grams of powder cocaine would result in the same sentence as only 5 grams of crack. It’s not hard to see how this had a disparate impact on the black communities in this country. As a result, far more black citizens were being incarcerated for drug offenses that their white counterparts. Under the Obama administration this began to change.

In 2010, Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act, which started to whittle away at the mandatory minimum sentencing scheme for crack cocaine. It also increased the possession amount required to be charged with a crime that carried with it certain mandatory minimum penalties. Attorney General Eric Holder then directed federal prosecutors to avoid charging drug crimes that carried mandatory minimum sentences under certain circumstances. These included; 1) lack of criminal history; 2) violence or a fire arm was not used; 3) it wasn’t tied to a large scale drug ring, and; 4) the defendant was not a leader of an organization. This provided federal prosecutors with wide discretion in charging those suspected of drug offenses, and gave wider latitude in making sentencing recommendations below any mandatory minimum that may apply. This had the effect of a fair sentencing scheme, that which took into consideration a number of factors that could minimize incarceration.

Now, Mr. Sessions has tossed that policy into the garbage and is directing federal prosecutors to prosecute all crimes where the evidence is sufficient to convict. This will undoubtedly result in more criminal prosecutions, and longer sentences for offenses that do not warrant such treatment. Yes, drug use and the sale of the same can be dangerous. However, Session’s new policy completely ignores the goal of rehabilitation and fairness in sentencing.

It won’t take long for us all to see that the end result will be more overcrowding of prisons, and an enhanced disproportionate number minorities being incarcerated for low level drug offenses.

Now, Mr. Sessions has tossed that policy into the garbage and is directing federal prosecutors to prosecute all crimes where the evidence is sufficient to convict. This will undoubtedly result in more criminal prosecutions, and longer sentences for offenses that do not warrant such treatment. Yes, drug use and the sale of the same can be dangerous. However, Session’s new policy completely ignores the goal of rehabilitation and fairness in sentencing.

It won’t take long for us all to see that the end result will be more overcrowding of prisons, and an enhanced disproportionate number minorities being incarcerated for low level drug offenses.