US Justice Department orders tougher criminal punishments

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sent a memo to all federal prosecutors instructing them to pursue the "most serious, readily provable offense" for their cases.

In 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder directed prosecutors to avoid charging people with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences, which require judges to impose lengthier prison terms.

The policy change takes place immediately, even though nearly all the US attorneys across the county are serving in acting roles, following the request for resignation in March of all remaining as holdovers from the Obama administration.

Nostalgia for the 1980s and '90s is hot right now, and that retro fever seems to have afflicted AG Jeff Sessions, whose new sentencing memo initiates a throwback to the draconian law enforcement policies of the Reagan years of the Drug War.

"Decades of experience shows we can not arrest and incarcerate our way out of America's drug problem", he said. Subsequent laws across the country laid down tough minimums for other crimes.

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Sessions has remained an advocate for longer sentences, even as efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system secured bipartisan support in recent years. The Judiciary panel advanced that measure in 2015 on a 15-5 vote.

During remarks at the Sergeants Benevolent Association Awards presentation in New York City on Friday, Sessions said his new approach is simply the "right and moral thing to do", noting upticks in violent crime in several cities across the US and linking those surges to drugs. Many of them are serving mandatory minimum sentences that were created during the course of America's war on drugs. The laws also ballooned the prison population, leading to costs that were unsustainable for some state governments.

"It looks like we're going to fill the prisons back up after finally getting the federal prison population down", said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus: "Our biggest concerns about Attorney General Sessions are becoming reality", he said in a statement.

In a speech Friday morning in Washington, DC, to the Sergeants Benevolent Association of New York City, Sessions cited the heroin epidemic and rising rates of violent crime and murders in large cities as reasons for cracking down further on drug cases.

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Now, if prosecutors wish to pursue lesser charges for these low-level crimes, they will need to obtain approval for the exception from a USA attorney, assistant attorney general or another supervisor. By the time Holder took office, there was a strong preference among federal prosecutors to seek guilty pleas through plea bargaining rather than incurring the expense of a criminal trial.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, said in a statement that Sessions is trying to revive the "war on drugs", which she said "treated drugs, addiction and substance abuse as a crime instead of as a public health issue".

Holder, who served under the Obama administration, implemented the "Smart on Crime" drug sentencing policy that focused on not incarcerating people who committed low level non-violent crimes.

Boyd said it's important to find alternatives, and ways to help people rehabilitate so they can productively re-enter society.

It's common knowledge that the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world, but less well understood is just how expensive it is to keep millions of people behind bars for decades at a time.

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