To combat the so-called “war on drugs,” Congress passed severe sentencing laws in the 1980s and 1990s. Regardless of a person’s circumstances or the scenario, an individual found with certain traces of marijuana, cocaine or any other type of illegally controlled substance would be handed down a mandatory minimum sentence–such as life without the possibility of parole–if convicted.
As a result, U.S. prisons all across the country began filling with hundreds of thousands of inmates serving stern sentences for low-level, non-violent crimes.
As the U.S. prison population rose to over 2.4 million in the early 2000s, civil rights groups began questioning whether these laws were effective in reducing the crime and put pressure on the federal government to do something.
Bipartisan support for sentencing reform
After a U.S. Sentencing Commission conference conducted several years ago, the Attorney General and Department of Justice (DOJ) started to change their tune. They couldn’t repeal the law, but they could find creative ways to skirt it. And they did.
With bipartisan support, the DOJ began encouraging federal prosecutors to consider charging low-level offenders with crimes that were not tied to automatic sentences. Prison populations decreased and many individuals were given fair sentences.
But this momentum is all about to change.
The new plan
Today, a new administration is in power. Jeff Sessions, the newly appointed Attorney General, plans to take a different direction, instructing federal prosecutors to change course and pursue the maximum penalties possible for drug offenses. The direction was provided to over 5000 assistant U.S. attorneys in a two-page memo recently released.
Reason for the change
In a public statement, Sessions made clear his reasoning behind the change: Prosecutors should not be allowed to use their discretion to circumvent laws specifically passed by our elected officials.
“We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and simple,” he stated.
Pushback against the initiative
Eric Holder, Attorney General during the Obama administration, said the new decision was “unwise” and will no doubt “take this nation back to a discredited past.”
Holder went on to state that such action is “not tough on crime [but] dumb on crime. It has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”
Today, the prison population is the lowest it has been in over a decade. Given the new initiative, the population is likely to rise.
Hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney cannot be stressed enough
The Times They Are A Changin’, as Bob Dylan once put it. Now more than ever, those facing federal drugs charges of any kind are advised to get an aggressive criminal defense attorney. Prosecutors are no longer given discretion to seek sentences that are fair or “just” based on individual circumstances as they once were. Today, they have no choice but to seek mandatory sentences–ones likely to result in decades behind bars for those convicted.