Darryl A. Goldberg
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Did AG Sessions just reignite the war on drugs?

In recognition of the astronomical cost and grave injustice that has resulted from keeping non-violent drug offenders locked in federal prisons for decades owing to draconian sentencing schemes established roughly 30 years ago, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder formally adopted what was known as the "Smart on Crime Initiative" in 2013.

At its core, this initiative called on federal prosecutors to focus on the most serious crimes and reduce the number of individuals charged with non-violent drug offenses that could result in lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.

Specifically, federal prosecutors were essentially forbidden from pursuing drug crime charges resulting in a mandatory minimum unless:

  • The defendant's conduct involved a threat of violence, actual violence, weapon possession or death;
  • The defendant organized, managed or headed a criminal enterprise;
  • The defendant had ties to large-scale drug trafficking; or
  • The defendant had prior convictions

These efforts appear to have been successful, as statistics show the federal prison population has fallen by a not insubstantial margin in recent years.

Interestingly enough, however, federal prison officials were recently notified to start preparing for larger prison populations owing to the now shifting priorities of the Department of Justice.

Indeed, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a new memo to 94 U.S. attorneys offices across the nation late last week instructing federal prosecutors that not only are the aforementioned charging factors in drug crime cases to be jettisoned going forward, but that prosecutors should now "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense."

As to what constitutes "serious" offenses, Sessions' memo articulated that it includes those carrying "the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences."

As to what this new enforcement initiative might look like, DOJ officials indicate that ten-year mandatory minimums would likely be sought by federal prosecutors in those cases involving possession of 1,000 kilograms of marijuana, 5 kilograms of cocaine or 1 kilogram of heroin.

As for the targeting of low-level drug offenders, they indicated this will only occur if it's found they are linked to gangs, firearms or other aggravating factors.

Despite these assurances, the Attorney General's memo has drawn considered criticism from advocacy groups like the ACLU and the NAACP, and former AG Holder, who characterized the move as "dumb on crime."

Other critics included Illinois' own Sen. Dick Durbin (D), who declared that it "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."

Given this dramatic shift in the enforcement policies of the DOJ, it's imperative for those facing federal drug charges to consider speaking with a skilled legal professional as soon as possible. 

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