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A return to mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes?

A few months into his tenure, Jeff Sessions has launched a new era in the ongoing war on drugs. The attorney general recently issued a memo to the 94 U.S. attorneys nationwide to pursue “the most serious” charges against suspects.

His directive replaces a memo by former attorney general Eric Holder that directed prosecutors not to charge low-level drug offenders with crimes incurring a mandatory minimum sentence. Holder believed that sentencing rules led to non-violent offenders serving longer prison terms that put a significant burden on taxpayers.

Justice officials claim that the new policy would only apply to criminals associated with gang membership or linked to firearms and other aggravating crimes.

According to Sessions, the new charging and sentencing policies affirms the responsibility to enforce the law, provide consistency and use the necessary tools provided by Congress. He did leave open certain circumstances where good judgment by a prosecutor deciding that strict application would be unwarranted. Those decisions would require high-level approval.

Between 2009 and 2015, the population of sentenced prisoners decreased by 7,981 inmates or five percent, according to analysis in January by the Pew Research Center. Preliminary numbers for 2016 shows a continuing reduction.

The current federal prison population stands at 190,000. The attorney general’s decision combined with the increases in immigration prosecutions could see the return of overcrowding in federal prisons.

Detractors fear that Sessions has “turned back the clock” on the criminal justice system. The reversal would be “substantively and financially ruinous and result in more money going into incarcerating people and less on preventing, detecting or investigating drug crimes.

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