Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to ratchet up the war on drugs by undoing Obama-era sentencing reforms signals an about-face on drug policy, and the move has prompted an outcry from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Going forward, anyone who faces federal drug charges will likely be subject to a harsh mandatory-minimum sentence. “This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency,” Sessions said in a memorandum issued last week. “Any inconsistent previous policy of the Department of Justice relating to these matters is rescinded, effective today.”
President Barack Obama and his then-Attorney General Eric Holder enacted reforms in 2013 dubbed “smart on crime.” The policy allowed prosecutors who were filing charging documents to omit the amount of drugs in the case, so that it wouldn’t trigger a mandatory-minimum sentence. The reforms were intended to cut back on the number of people serving lengthy sentences for crimes that were not linked to large-scale cartel or gang activity.
Criminal justice reform has had bipartisan support, borne from the widely-held view that harsh sentencing policies failed, and had instead sent incarceration rates skyrocketing. Mass incarceration cost the nation about $80 million a year in additional costs to maintain prisoners convicted on minor drug offenses, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. One study by researchers at Washington University, St. Louis, accounting for lost wages and socio-economic costs of incarceration, put the figure closer to $1 trillion per year.
Here are some of the people speaking out against Sessions’ actions:
Eric Holder, former Attorney General 2009-2015:
“The policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime…This absurd reversal is driven by voices who have not only been discredited but until now have been relegated to the fringes of this debate.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky):
“Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long… We should treat our nation’s drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ problem.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah):
“To be tough on crime we have to be smart on crime.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania):
“This is wrong. [The] DOJ should focus on prosecuting violent criminals, not nonviolent drug offenders. We must reform our criminal justice system.”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota)
“Our society has had many years to assess the impact of mandatory minimums and harsh sentencing, and the verdict is in. Harsh sentencing have not made our society safer nor sentencing fairer.
“The only people who benefit from these laws are those who have a financial stake in imprisonment: the private prison industry and vendors to the public system.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois):
“This policy shift flies in the face of the growing bipartisan consensus that we need to reduce — not increase — the length of prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont):
“The Attorney General’s new sentencing policy is an ideologically motivated attempt to resurrect the failed policies of the War on Drugs.”
“This will not make us safer — quite the opposite, it will strip critical public safety resources away from targeting truly violent criminals in order to house nonviolent drug offenders. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I am surprised. In recent years, when he was still a senator, the Attorney General was the most vocal opponent of bipartisan efforts to restore sanity to our nation’s counterproductive and hugely expensive sentencing policies.”
Vanita Gupta. former Director of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division:
“No surprise that Sessions is taking us backward in the fight to end mass incarceration.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey):
“This effort is a thinly veiled attempt to ramp up the failed War on Drugs and prosecute more nonviolent low-level offenders.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California):
“Jeff Sessions wants to turn back the block on the progress we’ve made on sentencing reform — and we must speak out against it.”
Rep . Justin Amash (R-Michigan):
“Let’s pass criminal justice reform to put an end to this unjust, ineffective and costly policy.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California):
“As President Trump distracts with outlandish threats, AG Sessions quietly brings back the harshest sentences of the failed War on Drugs”