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New Charging Policy Will Increase Mass Incarceration

United States Attorney General Jefferson Sessions put out a tragic new policy today that, if it is followed, will ruin countless lives through the unyielding weight of the federal law. Under the policy, which is outlined in this memorandum “for all federal prosecutors,” the government will “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.” This means U.S. attorneys no longer exercise discretion, but instead will pursue people with the highest penalties, i.e. the longest Guidelines sentences and the harshest mandatory minimums, that they can. The new policy is a sea change, especially in drug cases, where prosecutors were previously directed to seek mandatory minimum sentences only against the most serious offenders (in case there was any confusion, Attorney General Sessions specifically rescinded that policy, known as the Holder Memorandum).

In child pornography cases, the new policy means that virtually all offenders may be charged with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for “receipt” of illegal child pornography. While fraud cases generally do not carry mandatory minimums, it may mean that more defendants are charged with aggravated identity theft, which carries a two-year mandatory minimum sentence consecutive to any other sentence imposed. If individual prosecutors do not charge these “most serious, readily provable” offenses, they will have to get approval from the U.S. attorney for the district or an assistant attorney general, or their designee. Reasons not to charge must be “documented in the file.”

Defenders of over-criminalization in the federal system point to prosecutorial discretion as a counterweight to the thousands of acts that Congress has defined as federal offenses. Prosecutors, they argue, need to be able to bring serious charges in order to obtain cooperation from defendants and to force fair guilty pleas. But the Sessions memorandum, if read literally, would seem to turn that approach upside down: it directs prosecutors to charge as harshly as possible, no matter how extreme or unusual the law is. Of course, the U.S. Department of Justice has a long tradition of decentralization, leaving many crucial decisions and policies to local U.S. attorneys. Again, that ought to be a bulwark against overreaching under the federal criminal code. But the Trump administration seems intent on breaking down many of the customs that have kept the federal system, on balance, relatively fair. If the Sessions memo is followed, it spells tragedy for families gathered up in its broad, thoughtless net.