On Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pulled the plug on policy changes implemented by the Department of Justice under President Obama that had begun to change America’s decades-long practice of keeping low-level criminals, like nonviolent drug offenders, languishing in prison. Sessions has directed prosecutors to return to strict sentencing and mandatory minimums, which could increase prison populations, and—in the midst of a national opioid epidemic—revive the unproven belief that punitive measures, instead of treatment, will solve drug addiction. And today’s memo will again have the criminal-justice system targeting poor black and Latino communities already devastated by the “war on drugs.”
In his memo rolling back the Justice Department’s efforts to shrink the number of people in prison, Sessions wrote, “It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious readily provable offense.” That means telling prosecutors and judges everywhere to return to extreme measures like seeking 10 years minimum for street-level drug sales. The policy, he wrote “is moral, and just, and produces consistency.” But that’s exactly the problem: It is not moral or just, or effective. “Mandatory minimums, charging as much as you can, those tough sentences don’t work,” said Michael Collins, deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization dedicated to promoting science-based drug policy. “They just exacerbate the problem, and it doesn’t stop drug use.”
Research from the last 20 years shows that imposing mandatory minimums, particularly on nonviolent drug offenders, hasn’t had positive results: according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice, incarceration has not been effective when it comes to reducing crime, and longer sentences haven’t reduced recidivism. “[Sessions] has no evidence to show that being harsher is effective or necessary or what prosecutors or judges want,” said Roy Austin, who served as deputy assistant to the president for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice, and Opportunity at the White House under Obama. “Our prisons don’t rehabilitate, or they do a very bad job at rehabilitating. Why are you locking someone up for 10 years with substandard programming thinking they’re going to be a better person?”
After Eric Holder issued the memo revising sentencing guidelines and curbing the use of mandatory minimums in 2013, the federal prison population decreased, but federal prisons account for a only small fraction of the total prison population. States, meanwhile, have also been moving away from mandatory minimums; since 2000, at least 29 states have done so, though there has not been enough research to determine what impact such changes have been on incarceration numbers nationwide.