Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed prosecutors to make an about-face on criminal justice reform efforts made by the Obama administration.
The directions came via a memo Sessions sent out on Thursday to the more than 5,000 assistant US attorneys, ordering them to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense," including minimum mandatory sentences, when prosecuting cases.
The policy shift has the potential to result in an increase of prisoners and longer sentences for drug crimes.
Sessions' memo has already been criticized by fellow Republican Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky.
In a response to Sessions' latest order, Paul wrote,
Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long.
Paul's swift opposition is indicative of the irony of Sessions latest memo: It comes at a time when there is a growing consensus that the criminal justice system needs to be reformed away from policies of the past, particularly when it comes to sentences for drug crimes.
It has not been uncommon to see both Democrats and Republicans, like Paul, warm up to and support criminal justice reform.
In addition, a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center found that the majority of Americans agree with states moving away from mandatory sentences for non-violent offenses.
With his memo, Sessions is pursuing a direct reversal of the orders sent out in 2013 by former Attorney General Eric Holder, an Obama appointee.
Holder's memo pursued a "smart on crime" policy that sought to avoid sentences low-level drug offenders to lengthy periods of imprisonment.
The "Holder Memorandum" read,
We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers. In some cases, mandatory minimum and recidivist enhancements statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution.
The Harvard Journal on Legislation critiqued the Holder memo as an "expansion of executive," essentially scrutinizing the method used to impose the policy (i.e. without the help of Congress).
However, the Harvard Journal also noted that the actual policy that the memo pursued was not divisive, noting,
...the curtailment of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders is hardly controversial at all—there is both public and bipartisan support in Congress to change the criminal code.
All in all, it's safe to say Sessions' memo directing a renewed pursuit of mandatory sentences introduces a terrible new policy. And we know this because it has been widely recognized as a terrible old policy.