By Frederick H. Lowe
WASHINGTON—Mandatory minimum sentences, which have been vilified by some as a war against African-American men, just got a strong push from the U.S. attorney general after a short-lived hiatus during the Obama administration, sparking angry objections by some, though it remains to be seen if the black community feels the same way given their mixed feelings about the issue.
In a May 10th memo to all 94 federal prosecutors, Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Attorney General, wrote that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious and 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. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines’ sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”
Sessions’ action reverses a policy by former President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that encouraged federal prosecutors not to pursue mandatory minimum sentences usually associated with low-level drug arrests. Sessions’ memo does not mention drug arrests.
Under Holder, the move away from mandatory minimum sentences, usually linked to low-level drug arrests, was called “smart on crime,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.
“In recent years the Department of Justice had achieved a substantial population reduction in its overcrowded prison system,” Mauer said in a statement. “The decrease was produced by several policy changes orchestrated by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and through the now-rescinded DOJ directive known as Smart on Crime. Reversing the directive will exacerbate prison overcrowding, increasing spending and jeopardize the safety of staff and prisoners.”
The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes sentencing reform, noted that the federal prison population has dropped 2.9% since 2011.
Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said: “Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long. 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 an as a ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ problem.”
Color of Change, like Sen. Paul, believes Sessions is trying to reignite the war on drugs and has launched an online petition drive to stop Sessions.
“The only real purpose this serves is to fill prisons with our people and fill the pockets of private prison companies. Almost half of the entire federal prison population consists of people serving time for drug offenses,” Color of Change wrote. “We need to shut down this clear attempt to fuel mass incarceration.”
But the black community may have a different opinion.
In the book “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” author James Forman Jr. writes as a public defender in Washington, D.C. that he attempted to keep a 15-year-old client out of a tough juvenile detention center.
Forman noted that everyone involved in the particular criminal case was black, including the judge, the arresting police officer, prosecutor and city council which had written the city’s stringent gun and drug laws.
In addition, blacks supported President Bill Clinton’s 1994 tough on crime legislation that led to tougher drug laws and mass incarceration of black men.
African-American men are angry about police brutality but they also are angry about hoodlums who shoot their guns, making their neighborhoods unsafe for their wives and children.