The American Civil Liberties Union says Attorney General Jeff Sessions is "repeating a failed experiment" by encouraging prosecutors to pursue tougher charges against most suspects.
Udi Ofer, director of the organization's Campaign for Smart Justice, said it sounds a lot like a throwback to the war on drugs. He says that effort in the 1970s and '80s "devastated the lives and rights of millions of Americans" and disproportionately hurt minorities. He says Sessions risks repeating "a vicious cycle of incarceration" at a time when crime rates are low.
Sessions' memo to U.S. attorneys is an undoing of Obama-era policies that aimed to ease federal prison overcrowding and show lenience to nonviolent, lower-level drug offenders. Sessions says the opioid scourge shows the need to return to tougher tactics.
Ofer says the policy is "draconian."
Some prosecutors, however, are praising Sessions' new policy urging them to charge the most serious crimes against suspects.
The move has been criticized by defense attorneys and advocates as likely to crowd federal prisons and subject lower-level drug offenders to long mandatory minimum sentences they see as unfairly harsh.
But the head of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys says the new guidance will make the public safer.
Lawrence Leiser said the policy will "restore the tools that Congress intended" federal prosecutors to use to punish drug traffickers and dismantle gangs.
He says the policy is simply an application of sentencing laws approved by Congress.
The policy undoes Obama-era guidance that Sessions says sidestepped federal law by allowing prosecutors to avoid charging some people with the most serious charges.
The head of a defense attorneys organization the directive that prosecutors pursue tougher charges against suspects has stripped them of their ability to seek justice.
Barry Pollack, of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says the new policy will "yield unfair results" and marks a return to the failed policies of past administrations.
Sessions is telling the nation's federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges possible against most suspects. That is sure to send more people to prison and for much longer terms by triggering mandatory minimum sentences. Sessions announced the move in a policy memo sent to U.S. attorneys. It's long been expected from the former prosecutor who has made fighting violent crime the Justice Department's priority.
The change undoes Obama administration policies aimed at easing prison overcrowding and showing leniency for lower-level drug offenders. Critics of the shift say it will revive the worst aspects of the drug war. But Sessions has said a spike in violence in some big cities shows the need for a return to tougher tactics.