WASHINGTON (CN) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday instructed federal prosecutors to “pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” in criminal trials, a departure from Obama-era policies that gave prosecutors greater discretion.
“This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency,” Sessions wrote in the two-page memo. “This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry he most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”
Sessions allows that in some cases prosecutors might decide to shift from that policy and charge only a lower offense, but that they should “carefully consider whether an exception” to the policy is warranted. Prosecutors will have to receive approval from a U.S. attorney or assistant attorney general if they want to charge a lesser offense, according to the memo.
The memo represents a shift from the Obama Justice Department’s charging policy, which gave leniency to low-level drug offenders. Sessions’ new guidelines specifically reverses a 2013 memo from former Attorney General Eric Holder that called for prosecutors to consider a defendant’s personal history when charging them.
“We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level or violent drug traffickers,” Holder wrote at the time.
The change is not a surprise, as it fits both with President Donald Trump’s tough-on-crime campaign rhetoric and Sessions’ positions on issues like criminal justice reform while he was serving in the Senate. Sessions was one of the first lawmakers to support Trump and Stephen Miller, now a senior advisor to Trump, was an aide to Sessions on Capitol Hill.
The adherence to charging the highest possible crime is a departure from the way both Republicans and Democrats have come to think about criminal justice policy in recent years. Sessions was a key hold out on a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill in the Senate that would have cut back mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses.
Advocates for criminal justice reform say the new policy could result in more crowded prisons because of the lengthier sentences that come with charging the highest provable offense.
“The Trump administration is returning to archaic and deeply-flawed policies,” Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said in a statement. “Sessions is leaving little to no room for prosecutors to use their judgment and determine what criminal charges best fit the crime. That approach is what led to this mess of mass incarceration. It exploded the prison population, didn’t help public safety and cost taxpayers billions in enforcement and incarceration costs.”