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Attorney General Jeff Sessions Orders Tougher Sentences For Drug Defendants


Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced today that federal prosecutors will be getting tougher on drug defendants by asking for longer sentences. The new policy is a rebuke to increased leniency introduced under President Obama. NPR's Martin Kaste explains.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: During the campaign, Donald Trump raised the alarm over rising crime, especially murder, which has spiked in some cities. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, says that violence is closely linked to the illegal drug trade.


JEFF SESSIONS: We intend to reverse this trend. We are returning to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress. Plain and simple, if you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way.

KASTE: Specifically, he's reversing an Obama-era policy called Smart on Crime. It didn't change actual sentences. What it did was allow prosecutors to avoid bringing charges that would lead to long sentences. For instance, if a nonviolent drug courier was caught with cocaine, the prosecutors could choose not to count the kilos, especially if counting up the kilos would lead to decades of prison time under federal rules. But now Jeff Sessions is saying the law is the law.


SESSIONS: I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious offense as I believe the law requires - most serious, readily provable offense.

JOHN WALSH: What this policy does is take us back to the days when if you had a life without parole sentence because of the amount of drugs involved, you had to charge it.

KASTE: That's John Walsh. He was U.S. attorney in Colorado under Obama. He says the previous administration was right when it told federal prosecutors to take other factors into account in bringing charges against someone, say, if that person was low level in the crime organization. And to be fair, he also acknowledges that Sessions' new policy would let prosecutors make exceptions, but he points out that under the new policy, the prosecutors would have to get permission to avoid filing excessive charges.

WALSH: Your only way to avoid that is to go all the way up to your boss, the U.S. attorney, and get your boss to sign off on exception. That's shackling the best instincts of line prosecutors to do justice.

KASTE: But the big picture question here is this. Will this policy end up increasing America's prison population, which is already the biggest in the world? John Pfaff is an expert in sentencing policy at Fordham Law.

JOHN PFAFF: In terms of, like, the national average, it won't have that big an impact.

KASTE: He says you have to keep in mind that we're just talking about the federal prosecutors here. They're responsible for only about 10 percent of the people behind bars in this country. The federal prison population did fall under Obama by about 8,000 prisoners, but that's a drop in the bucket of America's overall incarceration system which houses about 2 million people. So Pfaff says the national stats aren't going to change that much because of this new policy.

PFAFF: I think where it's going to matter a lot more is that the kind of aggressive enforcement that Sessions is proposing is the very kind that leads to the shocking, massive sentence kind of cases that I think really undermine people's faith in the system, a system that needlessly goes after a low-level people in an incredibly aggressive way.

KASTE: Ultimately this is about sending a message. Donald Trump enjoyed major support from law enforcement during the campaign, and that support was on full display today when Sessions announced his new policy and also received an honorary membership at the New York police sergeant's union. The union's president, Ed Mullins, was full of praise for Sessions.


ED MULLINS: We live in a time when politicians and the top brass in police departments do not always have the courage to put the interests of innocent citizens and officer safety ahead of political correctness and calculated re-election ploys. This is why we are so grateful to have an attorney general who rejects such cynical behavior.

KASTE: It is pretty clear that the attorney general is not concerned with political correctness on this issue of sentencing, and that's something many in law enforcement welcome. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.