‹ Back to Updates

WASHINGTON ― For years, conservatives like Charles Koch and Newt Gingrich have joined progressives in urging Congress to reform inflexible sentencing laws that mandate lengthy prison terms for particular crimes. Critics say these laws, a relic of the failed war on the drugs, are unnecessary, costly and inhumane.

But Jeff Sessions did not fully get on board with reform when he was a prosecutor or when he was a senator. And now that he’s U.S. Attorney General, Sessions could require federal prosecutors to seek the most serious charge in every case ― which may trigger lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for low-level defendants.

The Obama administration’s Justice Department elected to no longer pursue mandatory minimums for certain low-level drug offenders, and it touted in 2015 that federal drug prosecutors were moving away from seeking minimums “at record rates.” Those changes contributed to a drop in the federal prison population for the first time in decades at a time when the system was facing an overcrowding crisis.

However, Sessions is expected to go in a different direction. He’s tapped Steven Cook, a prosecutor who says the federal criminal justice system is working just fine, for a key role in Sessions’ new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which will re-evaluate the federal government’s response to crime.

As The Washington Post reports, Cook previously headed the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, a group that opposed Obama administration efforts to implement sentencing reforms. Sessions and Cook could re-emphasize the deployment of the across-the-board sentences Congress established for certain federal crimes, rather than allow prosecutors more discretion in charging decisions.

Mandatory minimums are controversial because they amount to a one-size-fits-all approach to punishment — which exacerbates racial disparities in sentencing. And they don’t allow judges to take individual circumstances into account. A 46-year-old man who allegedly sold $1,800 worth of painkillers to an informant, for example, faced a minimum 25-year prison sentence under Florida law in 2013. A 17-year-old who sold crack was sentenced to life in federal prison until his sentence was commuted by Obama (He now works as a school counselor).

Critics blame these laws for ballooning prison populations and for costs to taxpayers. This includes a growing number of Republicans. Conservative Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have all supported legislation that would reform mandatory minimum sentences. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit, also has a model policy for states that gives judges discretion to depart from these sentences for certain nonviolent offenders.   

“Sessions is grossly out of step with the rest of the party,” said Jessica Jackson Sloan, a human rights attorney who oversees #cut50, a bipartisan initiative to reduce mass incarceration. “It’s very alarming to us to suddenly see that Sessions ... is actually in favor of mandatory minimums and pushing for them so hard,” she added.

The attorney general came up as a federal prosecutor in Alabama during the 1980s, a time when the government was starting to take an aggressive approach to drug sentencing. The federal prison population subsequently ballooned from 24,640 inmates in 1980 to 219,298 by 2013. Sessions has pointed to this experience as influencing his views.  

“When mandatory minimums are either eliminated or reduced substantially, it reduces the ability of law officers to negotiate and protect the public,” Sessions said at a Senate hearing in 2015. “I’ve been there, I’ve prosecuted cases.”  

Add your Reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
Go to Top