WASHINGTON The Trump administration called for
tougher charges and longer prison time for criminals in a move
to return to strict enforcement of federal sentencing rules,
according to a memo the U.S. Department of Justice released on
In a two-page note to federal prosecutors, U.S. Attorney
General Jeff Sessions reversed course from the previous Obama
administration and told the nation's 94 U.S. attorneys to
"charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense."
The move is in line with tough campaign rhetoric against
criminals by U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican who had
also pledged to support police and law enforcement.
"This is a key part of President Trump’s promise to keep
America safe," Sessions said in remarks at the Justice
Under former president Barack Obama, a Democrat, the Justice
Department had sought to reduce mandatory-minimum sentences to
reduce jail time for low-level drug crimes and ease overcrowding
at federal U.S. prisons.
Obama's then-attorney general Eric Holder advised
prosecutors to avoid pursuing the toughest charges in certain
cases, such as more minor drug offenses, that would have
triggered mandatory sentencing under laws passed in the 1980s
In recent years, however, there has been growing bipartisan
interest among some in Congress, U.S. states and the courts to
reevaluate lengthy prison terms and instead focus on
alternatives to reducing criminal behavior.
Sessions' memo, dated on Wednesday, rescinds the Obama-era
policy, saying federal prosecutors must now disclose all
information about a case to the courts and follow current
sentencing rules. It also requires them to get approval so seek
a different sentence and make a case in writing.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a longtime opponent of
bipartisan sentencing reform efforts in Congress, called it a
"common sense" way to reduce drugs and crime.
But other Republicans rejected that claim, saying drug use
should be treated as a health problem and that the department's
policy shift would only deepen the nation's racial divide.
"Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and
disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too
long," Senator Rand Paul said.
PRISON POPULATIONS LIKELY TO RISE
Holly Harris, head of the bipartisan sentencing reform
organization U.S. Justice Action Network, said reform efforts
have taken hold even in deep-red conservative states where
"It's frustrating that Washington is not looking to the
states as the laboratories of democracy," she said.
Twenty-three U.S. states since 2007 have changed their
sentencing laws to reserve prison space for the most serious or
repeat offenders, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research
The federal change is also likely to increase the number of
people in the United States who are sentenced to U.S. prison.
"Reversing [Holder's] directive will exacerbate prison
overcrowding, increase spending and jeopardize the safety of
staff and prisoners," said Marc Mauer, who leads The Sentencing
Project, a national criminal justice research and advocacy
The number of sentenced prisoners in federal custody fell
slightly during Obama's time in office, reversing a decades-old
trend of growth.
Federal inmates represent a sliver of the overall U.S.
prison population of more than 1.5 million, according to Justice
On Friday, Sessions said the change was necessary to combat
rising drug use and crime, particularly in cities, and that it
was "simply the right and moral thing to do."
Several law enforcement leaders said the new policy would
not mitigate the nation's growing opioid epidemic, which Trump
has pledged to make a top priority.
"Decades of experience shows we cannot arrest and
incarcerate our way out of America’s drug problem. Instead, we
must direct resources to treatment and to specifically combating
violent crime," said Brett Tolman, a former U.S. Attorney in