Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants federal prosecutors to pursue the maximum sentence against people who break the law. Sessions sent the memo to all U.S. Attorneys this past week, while everyone was distracted by the firing of FBI Director James Comey. It’s pretty straight-forward and hardly gives prosecutors any leniency when it comes to seeking sentences.
First, it is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense. This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency. This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.
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. In that case, prosecutors should carefully consider whether an exception may be justified. Consistent with longstanding Department of Justice policy, any decision to vary from the policy must be approved by a United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General , or a supervisor designated by the United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General, and the reasons must be documented in the file.
Second, prosecutors must disclose to the sentencing court all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimum sentences, and should in all cases seek a reasonable sentence under the factors in 18 U.S .C. § 3553. In most cases, recommending a sentence within the advisory guideline range will be appropriate. Recommendations for sentencing departures or variances require supervisory approval , and the reasoning must be documented in the file.
Justice reform advocates knew this was coming because of Trump’s campaign promises to be a “law and order” candidate. His selection of Sessions as AG only proved this was one campaign promise he was going to do his best not to break. Jason Pye at FreedomWorks was quick to criticize Sessions’ memo, saying it was “overkill” and not really a conservative policy.
“Today’s federal prison population remains over 200,000, costing taxpayers millions. We have seen conservative states like Georgia and Texas make strides in making smart reforms to their justice systems. By reducing prison sentencing for nonviolent offenders, these states have seen higher public safety and lower recidivism, and it is saving taxpayer dollars. Incarceration rates and crime rates have decreased.
“Our current system is broken; it is not productive to lock up non-violent criminals next to violent criminals. It is crucial that we find a solution, and naturally restructuring this system aligns with conservative values.”
The Coalition for Public Safety and U.S. Justice Action Network also called Sessions’ new policy something which wasn’t a good idea, while pushing Congress to enact sentencing reform.
“Research has shown, time and again, that lengthy prison terms for lower-level offenders do not increase public safety. Federal prosecutors have a responsibility to enforce the law firmly, but need the flexibility to do so in ways that will best serve their communities and protect public safety. That’s why we have and continue to support congressional efforts to reform sentencing…
“Locking up people who don’t pose a threat to public safety is a waste of taxpayer money and law enforcement resources, and it doesn’t deter crime. The Bureau of Prisons already consumes roughly a quarter of the Justice Department’s budget. Those resources would be better spent on proactive public safety.”
There are going to be people reading this thinking, “So what? All these sentencing and justice reform types want to do is do drugs, and let all the druggies out.” or “Don’t the people pushing justice reform know what’s going on in California?” or “All these justice reform types are really anti-cop.”
None of these could be further from the truth.
Let’s remember something: the average U.S. citizen commits three felonies a day. Here’s an example of a rather ridiculous federal law involving the wrongful importation of seafood. Three American restaurant owners were given eight years in federal prison because they received lobster tails which weren’t in boxes and were an inch and a half undersized. The amazing thing about this case is the fact it involves the Lacey Act which means if an American violates a foreign law on fish or wildlife, they get prison time. Seems a little unfair, doesn’t it?
Here’s another example of a U.S. citizen getting prison for a rather odd crime. Dane Yirkovsky received 15 years in prison because he had a .22 caliber bullet. Kid you not! Yirkovsky found the bullet while doing remodeling work and put it in a box. Police searched the room about a year later, after he was accused of taking an ex-girlfriend’s property, discovered the bullet, and arrested Yirkovsky for being a felon in possession of ammunition. Why is he a felon? Because he broke into or tried to break into three Post Offices. Here’s the kicker to this: Yirkovsky didn’t even know he’d violated the law by possessing the bullet!
Do these people really deserve to have years taken away from their lives because they committed non-violent crimes? Yirkovsky got a mandatory minimum of 15 years for a crime he didn’t know he committed. The American restaurant owners got prison for lobsters they may or may not have known were too undersized. This type of stuff shows the disaster of overregulation and over criminalization.
Now for the part about what’s going on in California. There have been plenty of issues with California’s early release program and whether it actually works. But justice reform advocates aren’t talking about California. They’re focusing on things done in Republican-controlled states, including Texas and Georgia. Texas has saved $2B in prison costs, while seeing historically low crime rates. It prompted The New York Times to note “Even in Texas, Mass Imprisonment Is Going Out of Style.” Georgia has seen its prison population drop 16.3% and saved $245M in new prison costs. Their crime rate is also trending lower. The justice reform patterns in Texas and Georgia should be looked at and adopted elsewhere, including the federal level.
It’s also ridiculous to think all justice reform advocates are anti-cop. U.S. Justice Action Network Executive Director Holly Holms is a former prosecutor in Kentucky. Right on Crime Policy Director Marc A. Levin is a former Texas Supreme Court Attorney, while Senior Researcher Randy Petersen was a police officer for over two decades. Patrick Purtill Jr. at Faith and Freedom Coalition, which is also involved in justice reform, was in the federal Justice Department. These aren’t people who are anti-cop. They’re advocates who want to make the streets more safe, by making sure non-violent offenders don’t end up in prison where they can become hardened criminals. Prison isn’t a cakewalk for people, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see how many offenders who end up in prison later re-offend. This is why alternatives for non-violent offenders are important. It’s a preventative measure to keep more cops or innocents from being injured.
This is why Sessions’ memo on seeking the mandatory sentence possible for suspects is so frustrating. Some people don’t even know they’ve committed a crime because of how many rules and regulations there are on the books. Justice reform in states like Texas and Georgia have shown crime rates and expenses go down when reforms are enacted. The people leading the charge for justice reform aren’t cop haters, but want there to be alternatives to keep those who aren’t hardened criminals from becoming them. Sessions is wrong and should reconsider his horrible memo which won’t help anyone, except maybe prison builders and his own department’s budget. Congress can stop this by enacting sentencing reform, but only if they’re willing to act.