Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed all federal prosecutors to return to the old ways. Instead of taking steps to limit long prison sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders, he ordered U.S. Attorneys nationwide to seek the sentence set out in the federal sentencing guidelines, no matter how harsh.
“By definition,” he opined in his policy memo, “the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory-minimum sentences.” In other words, if the sentence for a nonviolent, street-level marijuana user’s sentence is harsh, it’s because Congress wants it that way.
But there’s plenty of evidence that Congress doesn’t want the extreme drug sentences we’ve been seeing — drug sentences that break up families, devastate communities, and overtax our prison system. One bit of evidence is the bipartisan effort to reduce drug sentences that then-Senator Sessions was instrumental in derailing last year.
The latest evidence is another bipartisan attempt to reduce those sentences. In direct response to Sessions’ policy memo, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have reintroduced the Justice Safety Valve Act. If passed, the law would fully authorize judges to reduce mandatory minimum sentences in the interest of justice.
Paul sees the injustice in our justice system
Rand Paul sharply criticized Sessions’ reinvigoration of the drug war, claiming it will “accentuate the injustice in our criminal justice system.”
As we’ve discussed on this blog before, the effect of Sessions’ prosecutorial policy mandate would be to reverse Obama-era reforms that limited mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent and low-level drug offenders. This was especially aimed at marijuana, particularly because the majority of states have legalized cannabis for at least medical purposes.
“In some cases, mandatory-minimum and recidivist-enhancement statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution,” Then-Attorney General Eric Holder wrote at the time. “Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation.”
At the same time, the lawmakers are concerned about prison overpopulation and the sometimes dangerous crowding we’ve seen as the federal prison population has grown.
Rand Paul echoed Holder’s statement. “Mandatory minimum sentences disproportionally affect minorities and low-income communities, while doing little to keep us safe and turning mistakes into tragedies,” he wrote the day after Sessions’ memo was released.
“As this legislation demonstrates, Congress can come together in a bipartisan fashion to change these laws.” Let’s hope they can pass the bill in the House.