Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Friday that he was rolling back an Obama-era effort to rein in harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders. Now, former Attorney General Eric Holder, the man responsible for overseeing much of those criminal justice reform efforts, is condemning the new policy.
In a two-page memo to federal prosecutors released on Friday, Sessions wrote that “it is a core principal that prosecutors charge and pursue the most readily approvable offense,” adding that people would need documented approval from their supervisors to flout this policy. In other words: always charge everyone as severely as possible, regardless of the circumstances.
Sessions’ memo represents the latest in an ongoing effort by the Department of Justice to undo any criminal justice reform progress made during previous administrations. It’s also a recommitment to the catastrophic War on Drugs, even as the horrendous consequences of that war—especially the devastation it brought to communities of color—has become more widely accepted than ever.
Upon news of Sessions’ memo, Holder released a blistering statement against the new policy, calling it a “reversal” from those whose voices “have not only been discredited but until now have been relegated to the fringes of this debate.”
Here is the statement in full:
The Attorney General’s unwise and ill-informed decision to reverse the progress being made in the Department of Justice’s criminal justice reform efforts ignores a rare bipartisan political consensus that has formed around sentencing reform efforts and will take this nation back to a discredited past. In removing the discretion I vested in the men and women of the Department of Justice to seek justice for the unique circumstances that each case presents, this administration reveals its lack of faith in their judgment and integrity.
The policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime. It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety. The Justice Department’s own data revealed just last year that, since I implemented Smart on Crime policies in 2013, prosecutors have used the discretion I gave them to focus on more serious drug cases. The data showed that while they brought fewer indictments carrying a mandatory minimum sentence, the prosecutions of high-level drug defendants had risen and that cooperation and plea rates remained effectively the same. Abandoning this evidence-based progress and turning back the clock to a discredited, emotionally-motivated, ideological policy also threatens the financial stability of the federal criminal justice system. These reversals will be both substantively and financially ruinous, setting the Department back on a track to again spending one third of its budget on incarcerating people, rather than preventing, detecting, or investigating crime. Under the policy announced today the money spent solely on incarceration would rise and lessen the ability of DOJ to hire prosecutors, agents and make grants to its state and local partners.
This absurd reversal is driven by voices who have not only been discredited but until now have been relegated to the fringes of this debate. Congress can reverse these actions by enacting the criminal justice reform measures that were being considered as late as last year and that had the support of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives. It should do so and ensure that criminal justice policy is designed for twenty-first century realities and not beholden to a failed twentieth century ideology.
Eric H. Holder, Jr. May 12, 2017