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Attorney General Sessions Directs Prosecutors to Return to Failed Criminal Justice Policies

The move reverses an Obama-era order that aimed to reduce over-charging, and reinstates more aggressive practices of the past that put people behind bars unnecessarily, wasted government resources, and had little public safety benefit.

May 12, 2017

New York, NY – Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors today to return to aggressive practices of the past that put more people behind bars unnecessarily, wasted government resources, and had little public safety benefit.

Under the Obama administration, prosecutors were given discretion to seek lower sentences that would not trigger federal “mandatory minimums” laws in some cases. The policy, part of former Attorney General Eric Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiative, conserved resources for the most serious offenders.

With today’s directive, federal prosecutors under Sessions will pursue the most serious charges for all cases. If a prosecutor decides to deviate, they must document their reasoning and get approval from a supervisor. Sessions’ move is the latest in a series of “tough-on-crime” actions from the Trump administration, whose senior officials have justified their aggressive approach with misleading claims of rising crime rates.

“The Trump administration is returning to archaic and deeply-flawed policies,” said Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “Sessions is leaving little to no room for prosecutors to use their judgement and determine what criminal charges best fit the crime. That approach is what led to this mess of mass incarceration. It exploded the prison population, didn’t help public safety, and cost taxpayers billions in enforcement and incarceration costs.”

“Sessions is an outlier on this issue, even when compared to members of his own party,” said Ames Grawert, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “Republicans, Democrats, advocates, and law enforcement are increasingly moving away from the exact approach Sessions brought back today.”

The Brennan Center discussed the Trump Administration’s likely roll-back of “Smart on Crime” initiatives in Criminal Justice in President Trump’s First 100 Days.

In December 2016, the Brennan Center released a report finding that 39 percent of prisoners are incarcerated without a public safety justification, in part because of charging practices like the ones Sessions implemented today. In 2014, the Center released Federal Prosecution for the 21st Century, outlining a roadmap to reorient prosecution practices to better reduce crime and unnecessary incarceration.

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Rebecca Autrey at or 646–292–8316.