Jeff Sessions wants stricter enforcement of drug crimes. People of color will suffer.


In a memo released to the public on Friday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called on federal prosecutors to pursue harsher sentences for low-level drug crimes — a stark reversal from the more lenient policies of the Obama administration.

The memo, obtained in full by NPR, calls for the stricter penalties to be doled out as part of an effort to achieve more "just and consistent results in federal cases."

"It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense," Sessions wrote. "By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences."

But mandatory minimum sentencing is nothing new — the policies outlined by Sessions hearken back to the "tough-on-crime" era of the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

In other words, we've been down this road before, and we already know where it leads: to people of color being disproportionately incarcerated at alarming rates at the hands of the federal government.

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Mandatory minimum sentences hit people of color the hardest

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law, establishing mandatory minimum prison sentences for the first time in an effort to crack down on drug use in the U.S.

Later, in 1994, President Bill Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which increased prison funding and further cracked down on sentencing for drug offenders.

The policies caused prison populations to skyrocket, but no demographic was hit harder than black and Latino men.

According to data from the Sentencing Project, people of color comprise 37% of the total U.S. population but 67% of the prison population. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, data shows, and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.

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Tony Papa, Manager of Media and Artist Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a phone interview that harsh sentencing policy was a proven failure. 

"Mandatory minimums are already a poison that have proven to be destructive to the criminal justice system," he said. "It's a waste of money, a waste of human lives — it's proven it didn't work. Now to revert back to that, 20 years later, is mind boggling."

Public backlash

In a statement issued Friday, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that the directive from Sessions will "[turn] back the clock on our criminal justice system, ensuring it will continue to disproportionately punish black people."

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"When President Trump asked black Americans what we have to lose by electing him, the answer is all the gains we've made in advancing justice and fairness," Ifill wrote.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul was also outspoken in his disagreement with the policies Sessions sought to enact.

"Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long," Paul said in a statement. "Attorney General Sessions' new policy will accentuate that injustice. Instead, we should treat our nation's drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a lock 'em up and throw away the key problem."

But despite the public outcry, Sessions made it clear in the memo that he intends for the changes to be implemented immediately.

"Any inconsistent previous policy of the Department of Justice relating to these matters is rescinded, effective today," he wrote.