Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ did not explicitly mention drugs in his recent memo instructing federal prosecutors to “pursue the most readily provable offense” in courts. It turns out that he didn’t need to—various advocacy groups and activists read between the lines of the two-page document and criticized it for signaling a renewal of the War on Drugs and its criminalization of low-level drug offenses, which disproportionately harms people of color.
Sessions made the May 10 memo publicly available via the Department of Justice’s website on Friday (May 12). It advises attorneys under his oversight to consistently charge and prosecute suspected offenders on “the most serious offenses,” which he defines as “those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”
He elaborated on this new memo and its implications for drug offenders in a speech later that day to members of the Sergeants Benevolent Association of New York City, a union representing thousands of New York Police Department sergeants that honored Sessions for his support of law enforcement:
We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress—plain and simple. If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way. We will not be willfully blind to your misconduct. We are talking about, for example, a kilogram of heroin—that’s 10,000 doses of heroin on the streets. Five kilograms of cocaine, 10,000 kilograms of marijuana. These are not low-level drug offenders [that] we and the federal courts are focusing on. These are drug dealers, and you drug dealers are going to prison. Working with integrity and professionalism, attorneys who implement this policy will meet the high standards required of the Department of Justice, and together, we will win this fight.
Sessions’ memo retroactively erases ex-attorney general Eric Holder’s 2013 policy eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. Critics accused Sessions of pursuing an aggressive policy that will put more people of color behind bars and fuel racially biased mass incarceration and policing. Here’s what leaders from five advocacy groups had to say:
Brennan Center’s justice program director Inimai Chettiar
“Sessions is leaving little to no room for prosecutors to use their judgment and determine what criminal charges best fit the crime. That approach is what led to this mess of mass incarceration. It exploded the prison population, didn’t help public safety and cost taxpayers billions in enforcement and incarceration costs.”
The Sentencing Project’s strategic initiatives director Kara Gotsch and executive director Marc Mauer
“The War on Drugs in the 1980s fueled a sharp rise in the number of federal drug prosecutions. … Tough sentences were emblematic of the distrust many communities of color held for law enforcement and the justice system. The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine resulted in longer sentences for crack cocaine offenses, 80 percent of which were applied to African Americans.
“Law enforcement priorities exacerbated this problem. African Americans are four times as likely as Whites to be arrested for drug offenses despite the fact that Whites and Blacks use drugs at roughly the same rate and that people who buy drugs usually purchase them from sellers of their own racial or ethnic background.
“While racial disparity has long plagued every level of the criminal justice system, Sessions’ actions are certain to increase them.”
Drug Policy Alliance’s deputy director of national affairs Michael Collins
“This is a disastrous move that will increase the prison population, exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and do nothing to reduce drug use or increase public safety. Sessions is taking the country back to the 1980s by escalating the failed policies of the drug war.”
American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice director Udi Ofer
“Jeff Sessions is pushing federal prosecutors to reverse progress and repeat a failed experiment—the War on Drugs—that has devastated the lives and rights of millions of Americans, ripping apart families and communities and setting millions, particularly Black people and other people of color, on a vicious cycle of incarceration.”
Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center’s director of appellate litigation David Shapiro
“From trivializing police abuse to defending racist immigration policies and doubling down on mass incarceration, Sessions demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has a single-minded focus to attack people of color.”