Political News

Sessions' call for maximum sentences confirms split among conservatives on criminal justice reform

Posted May 17

Attorney General Jeff Sessions decreed a surge in the War on Drugs Friday, formally reversing a 2013 policy laid down by Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder, which called on prosecutors to use discretion in charging defendants when the charge would trigger extremely long mandatory sentences.

In contrast, Sessions in a memo released on Friday called for prosecutors to use every charge and every tool in their power to seek the longest sentences possible.

“We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress, plain and simple,” Sessions said, The Washington Post reports. “If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way, we will not be willfully blind to your misconduct.”

Sessions' memo does contain a caveat with a bit of wiggle room: “There will be circumstances in which good judgment would lead a prosecutor to conclude that a strict application of the above charging policy is not warranted. In that case, prosecutors should carefully consider whether an exception may be justified.”

But the overall thrust of the memo and Sessions' speech on Friday is to encourage federal prosecutors to seek maximum sentences whenever possible.

Sessions represents the old guard of the GOP on crime issues, a voice that would have been in the mainstream of the party in 1995. But there's been a shift in conservative attitudes toward criminal justice, according to a recent report in The Deseret News that focused on the role of Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee in securing an early release for Weldon Angelos, a man who had been sentenced to 55 years without parole for a first-time marijuana dealing arrest.

Lee, it was noted, is just one of many conservative voices challenging the longstanding GOP tradition of hard-line criminal justice policy.

Sessions' statement on Friday confirms that the split among conservatives on crime remains deep and wide. At the conservative National Review, for example, contributing editor Andrew Stuttaford wrote a scathing response to Sessions' edict, calling out both his defense of civil asset forfeiture and the entire War on Drugs.

"The war on drugs has not only failed, it has also created quite remarkable amounts of collateral damage," Stuttaford wrote. "It has trashed civil liberties. It has boosted the power of the state far further than it should ever have been allowed to go. It has squandered the resources of the criminal justice system. It has helped terrorists. It has enriched criminals. It has ruined lives. It has cost billions. It has worked against American foreign policy. It has benefited the ‘prison-industrial complex’. And, yes, it has also created a demand for drugs far more dangerous than those, in a legal market, that people would want to try."

Sessions is also at odds with civil libertarians and key voices in his party on civil asset forfeiture, which allows state and federal officials to seize funds and property of people suspected but never charged or convicted of any crime. Sessions has been outspoken in his defense of the controversial practice.

But while Sessions is outspoken in his defense of mandatory minimum prison sentences, it is unclear at the moment what President Trump would do if presented with a bipartisan bill to revamp federal sentencing.

Pushing against Sessions in that case would likely be Trump's influential son-in-law and key adviser, Jared Kushner, who in March met with a group of bipartisan senators in criminal justice reform proposals. Many observers see Kushner as an ace up the sleeve of reformers, poised and motivated to counter pressure from Session's Department of Justice.

Email: eschulzke@deseretnews.com

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