There aren’t many things a civil libertarian will say the Obama Administration did right, their minor reforms on federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines were certainly steps in the right direction. The Trump Administration has now reversed course and taken giant steps backwards.
On May 10, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a MEMORANDUM FOR ALL FEDERAL PROSECUTORS stating in part, “It is of the utmost importance to enforce the law fairly and consistently.” Adding the goal of the memo is to “achiev[e] just and consistent results in federal cases” by requiring prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.”
Vice News calls this move “War on Drugs 2.0” reporting, “The move counteracts the ‘smart on crime’ reforms enacted under President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, including a 2013 policy change that allowed prosecutors to use their discretion and avoid harsh mandatory minimums in drug cases that involve lower-level or nonviolent offenders.” Adding, “The leeway helped reduce the federal prison population by nearly 10 percent. Last year, about 44 percent of federal drug offenders received a mandatory-minimum sentence, the lowest level since 1993.”
It seems that Trump, Sessions & Co. want to keep the prisons full of nonviolent drug offenders; which should come as no surprise considering Sessions said last year “good people don’t smoke marijuana” and recently described cannabis as “only slightly less awful” than heroin. One need only look at the statistics to see that Sessions is out of touch with the reality that cannabis is responsible for exactly 0 overdose related deaths in all of human history! But I digress.
Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said, “With overall crime rates at historic lows, it is clear that this type of one-dimensional criminal justice system that directs prosecutors to give unnecessarily long and unfairly harsh sentences to people whose behavior does not call for it did not work… the American people have said with a clear voice that they want commonsense reforms to sentencing policy, and not a return to the draconian policies that have already cost us too much.”
Mandatory minimum sentences not only fill up prisons, they remove judicial discretion by essentially forcing judges to give long sentences, sometimes life in prison, to nonviolent criminals like Evans Ray Jr. who had his three-strikes sentence commuted by former President Obama. The judge in that case, Alexander Williams Jr., before handing down the harsh sentence said, “It is my desire not to sentence you to life.” However his hands were tied and he was required by law to issue a sentence he knew wasn’t “fair and consistent” with the circumstances of Ray’s offense.
Despite support from lawmakers, judges and civil liberties groups for reform of mandatory minimum sentencing, Kevin Ring, President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says, “We’re going backward.” Though as the proverb says, “An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backward!”