While President Trump campaigned as “the law-and-order candidate,” his ubiquitous, tough-on-crime rhetoric was surprisingly lacking in details. But actions can, as the saying goes, speak louder than words, and it’s not what President Trump has said since being elected, but rather what he’s done — namely picking Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general — that has proven the biggest indicator of what his criminal justice policy will ultimately look like. And giving pause to all cannabis advocates, Sessions is bringing back mandatory marijuana minimum sentences.
Jeff Sessions reverses Obama-era prosecution guidelines
As we’ve mentioned before, Candidate Trump repeatedly vowed that, if elected, he would defer to states’ rights on the issue of marijuana. Attorney General Sessions, however, is clearly moving in a more aggressive direction. Sessions has set a July 27 deadline for a Justice Department task force to review the country’s marijuana policies, and while it’s unclear what actions, if any, he plans to take in regards to medical marijuana, Sessions recently issued a memo overturning the sweeping criminal charging policy reform of former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., directing federal prosecutors instead to charge defendants with the most serious, provable crimes carrying the most severe penalties.
In 2013, Holder issued a memo intended to reform America’s prisons via simple changes to the way drug cases were prosecuted. His goal was to prevent decades-long prison terms for people who were arrested with a small amount of drugs and weren’t dangerous, hard-core, and habitual criminals. Recognizing that the details of two different cases can be drastically unique, Holder rolled back the default position of the harshest possible jail term in all drug cases, while keeping the option available in cases involving, say, defendants who were devoted to a life of crime as part of a large-scale drug trafficking organization, cartel, or gang.
Sessions’ memo removes that distinction. Now, like prior to the Holder memo, someone arrested with even a tiny quantity of pot could receive a life sentence if they already have two previous drug convictions of any kind. Yes, that means mandatory marijuana minimum sentences could send someone to prison for life — a one-size-fits-all punishment that doesn't fit the crime.
“By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences,” Sessions wrote. Bypassing individualized consideration of circumstances in favor of a one-size-fits-all approach that matches sentencing guidelines “affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency,” he wrote.
While prosecutors can still decide that a particular case doesn’t warrant a severe sentence, the memo states, an Assistant Attorney General or their U.S. Attorney must approve the more lenient sentence in writing. Prosecutors could make those calls themselves under the Obama Administration. Prosecutors are now also directed to follow federal guidelines of sentencing — which can exceed mandatory minimums — unless they get permission from a supervisor to seek a lesser sentence.
“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,” the memo states. “In that case, prosecutors should carefully consider whether an exception may be justified.”
Tougher sentences, increased prison populations
The Holder memo isn’t the only directive that Sessions has reversed. The new policy will likely spur more federal prosecutions, as well as an increase in the federal prison population. And Sessions seemed to anticipate the boost in conviction, reversing a directive in February from previous deputy attorney general Sally Yates for the Justice Department to halt the use of private prisons to house federal inmates.
Although the memo is disappointing, it isn’t all that shocking. Sessions is a very active soldier in the war on drugs whose views have remained unchanged despite the nation’s increased move toward more lenient marijuana legislation. As a senator, he regularly pushed back against bipartisan Congressional efforts to pass sentencing reforms that would serve to unify the views of the two administrations, and he even hinted that he would reverse Holder’s sentencing directives during his confirmation hearings.
The discrepancies related to marijuana legislation are already considerable, and the Sessions memo does nothing to close the gap.