(Washington) – US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ May 12, 2017, memorandum outlining new charging and sentencing policies will result in disproportionately severe sentences and drive up the number of people needlessly incarcerated, Human Rights Watch said in a detailed question-and-answer document released today.
The document includes analysis of the impact of earlier Justice Department guidance for prosecutors on incarceration rates, as well as information about the likely impact of Sessions’ policy guidance on incarceration and drug use in the United States.
“At a time of growing bipartisan consensus in favor of sentencing reform, Attorney General Sessions is stubbornly clinging to the same old drug war policies of the 1980s and 90s,” said Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, US program co-director at Human Rights Watch. “Seeking the harshest possible sentences will do nothing to further health or public safety, and will instead further fuel over-incarceration and erode the legitimacy of the justice system.”
The Sessions memo limits the discretion of federal prosecutors, instructing them to pursue the most serious charge, defined as the one that carries the most severe punishment, available to them. It turns back the clock on recent Justice Department efforts to reduce excessive sentencing, and runs contrary to national bipartisan movements in favor of sentencing and drug policy reform.
Sessions has justified his new policy as necessary to combat drug trafficking and what he portrays as rising violent crime in the US. In fact, violent crime has dropped steadily and significantly since the 1990s, as reflected in the data Human Rights Watch analyzed – Sessions’ claims about increases are hyperbolic. The Q&A also notes that harsh sentencing policies have failed to meaningfully reduce problematic drug use or supply. Instead, their primary impact has been to inflict serious damage on the people affected, many of whom are sentenced to long prison terms for non-violent, relatively minor crimes, as well as to their families and communities. Those affected are disproportionately Black and Latino, even though people of different races use drugs at the same rates.
Additional data in the Q&A shows dramatic increases in federal drug control spending – over US$343 billion since 2004 – even as drug use remained stable, or increased slightly. Meanwhile, the government’s policies have worsened insecurity by fueling the vast illicit market in drugs, to the benefit of organized criminal groups that victimize vulnerable communities and undermine human rights and the rule of law in many countries.
The new guidelines come at a time when federal prosecutors have been filing fewer drug cases with mandatory minimums and offenders have been receiving lower average sentences, resulting in a slight reduction in federal prison populations in 2015, as documented in the Q&A.
“Sessions’ misguided approach to drugs and sentencing will have devastating effects at a time when progress was just beginning in earnest,” said McFarland Sánchez-Moreno. “It’s now up to Congress and the states to ensure the US continues on a path toward ending over-incarceration and approaching drugs as a health, rather than a criminal justice, matter.”