Attorney General Jeff Sessions has just taken another goose-step in the march toward authoritarianism. He’s ordered federal prosecutors to charge suspects with “the most serious, readily provable offense,” including mandatory minimum sentences, according to a memo publicly released on May 12, 2017.
This marks a step back from the Obama administration’s discretionary, lenient policies on nonviolent drug crimes. It returns the country to the failed “war on drugs” mentality of the 1980s.
“The policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “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.”
Here are five reasons Sessions’ regressive mandate is bad for the country – particularly communities of color.
It will grow an already bloated prison system.
Since 1980, the federal prison population has skyrocketed nearly 700 percent. Though the U.S. has just 5 percent of the world’s population, it has more than 20 percent of the world’s prison population. Far from being the land of the free, the U.S. is the land of the incarcerated. It is the planet’s largest jailer.
Mandatory minimum sentences have contributed to this despicable distinction, locking people away for unnecessarily long times for committing minor crimes. In 2014, 59 percent of the 90,000 people in federal prison for drug offenses were there because of mandatory minimum sentencing. And they’re in prison for an average of more than 11 years.
Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color.
In 2008, African Americans and Hispanics comprised 58 percent of all prisoners, though combined they make up only 25 percent of the U.S. population. If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites are, our current prison and jail populations would plummet by 50 percent.
Incarceration also shatters families and communities of color, triggering long-term vicious cycles: Children with imprisoned parents are more likely to have substance abuse problems, perform poorly in school, and exhibit aggression.
Mass incarceration is expensive yet ineffective.
During the same time the federal prison population increased 700 percent – 1980 to 2016 – the Bureau of Prisons’ budget ballooned by 685 percent to $7.5 billion. Was this a worthwhile expense for taxpayers? No.
Almost none of this budget goes to rehabilitation and reentry programs. And people with jail time on their record can find it next to impossible to find a job. This means the prison system is essentially a machine that produces repeat criminals. Within five years of being released, 76 percent of prisoners are rearrested.
Mass incarceration does not make the public safer.
Crime has decreased during the same time that incarceration has increased, leading Jeff Sessions and his pro-prison ilk to claim that jailing vast swaths of the population makes the rest of us safer. But if one actually looks at the evidence, it’s clear that isn’t true.
Though incarceration did decrease crime somewhat in the 1980s, it had no effect on violent crime in the 1990s and 2000s, and only a tiny impact on property crime during the same period.
Most tellingly, the crime rate dropped most sharply in states that reduced their imprisonment rates. In many states, the prison rate seemed completely unrelated to the crime rate. For example, officials in Florida have probably boasted that by increasing their incarceration rate by 31 percent, they reduced crime by 54 percent. But New York also decreased its crime rate by 54 percent, and it decreased its incarceration rate by 24 percent.
Sessions’ mandate makes prosecutors “prisoners” to draconian federal directives.
In his directive, Jeff Sessions said, “Charging and sentencing recommendations are bedrock responsibilities of any prosecutor, and I trust our prosecutors in the field to make good judgment. They deserve to be un-handcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington.”
This directive, however, does the opposite: It handcuffs and micromanages prosecutors.
Prosecutors have been operating under former Attorney General Eric Holder’s request that they should avoid doling out mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. This request gave them discretion over prison sentences based on each individual’s circumstances.
Under Sessions’ directive, prosecutors will need to ask permission from a U.S. attorney, assistant attorney general or another supervisor if they want to pursue lesser charges for non-dangerous drug crimes.
You can read Sessions’ full memo here.