Attorney General Reignites War on Drugs, Orders Prosecutors to Seek Stiffer Penalties

U.S. AG Jeff Sessions ordered prosecutors to go for the most serious charges available.

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions has changed U.S. policy on prosecutorial discretion, requiring that federal prosecutors charge defendants with the most serious offenses that can be proved.

In criminal law, the term “prosecutorial discretion” refers to the leeway that government attorneys have in deciding whom to charge and what to charge them with. The law gives prosecutors a lot of latitude in determining what (if any) charges to bring against suspects and what kinds of sentences to seek.

Federal prosecutors have long had prosecutorial discretion, and their bosses have long told them how to exercise it. In 2013, then Attorney General Eric Holder instructed his prosecutors not to charge some kinds of defendants with drug crimes that carry long mandatory minimum sentences. Holder had also told his U.S. attorneys to make sure the charges in each case fit the circumstances at hand.

Current Attorney General Sessions’s May 2017 instructions—to generally “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense”—undo Holder’s policy.

Attorneys and journalists say the Sessions policy revives the approach of the War on Drugs and fends off recent efforts to curb prison populations. Supporters say that the new policy eliminates the undue leniency of the Holder approach, while critics contend that it will lead to draconian punishment and further prison overcrowding.

Effective date: May 10, 2017