U.S. Sen. Rand Paul is criticizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions for directing federal prosecutors to charge defendants with the most serious crimes they can pursue.
The new guidelines are a departure from an Obama-era policy that eased prosecutions of people with non-violent drug offenses.
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.
In a statement, Paul said the reprisal of the “tough on crime” policy isn’t a good idea.
“Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long,” Paul said. “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.”
Paul has pushed for reforms to the criminal justice system, including reduction of mandatory minimum sentences on drug crimes, expungement of felony records and restoration of voting rights, though the proposals haven’t garnered enough support to get a floor vote.
However, Paul voted in favor of Sessions’ confirmation earlier this year. Sessions has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for being “soft on crime” and accused the former president’s policies of leading to violent crimes.
Sessions’ policy amounts to a return to strategies conceived under former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who directed federal prosecutors to charge people with the most serious crimes possible.
Under the Obama-era policy, defendants who didn’t belong to large drug trafficking organizations qualified to be charged with crimes that didn’t carry long mandatory minimum sentences.
This week, Sessions issued a memo to Department of Justice staff ordering federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.”
“This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency,” Sessions wrote. “This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us.”
Prosecutors who wish to not pursue the most serious charges possible would have to get approval from a U.S. attorney or assistant attorney general.
Kerry Harvey, who was the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Kentucky until earlier this year, said implementation of the policy will depend on each U.S. attorney’s office.
“But on the face of it you would expect that the sentences, particularly in drug trafficking cases, would be longer,” Harvey said.