With the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. at unprecedented rates, largely due to long sentences for drug offenders, the trend had been to try to reduce those sentences -- at least for low-level, nonviolent offenders. That was the purpose of a 2013 policy memo by then-Attorney General Eric Holder.
In that memo, Holder recommended that federal prosecutors omit the quantity of drugs when preparing sentencing memoranda for these low-level offenders. The point of doing that was to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences under the federal sentencing guidelines. The quantity of drugs involved in a criminal incident acts as a multiplier under those guidelines.
"Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation," Holder wrote in the memo.
Lacking the quantity of drugs prompted sentencing judges to avoid the mandatory minimums and sentence the defendant using more traditional standards of justice and proportionality. Federal judges already have the power to overrule mandatory minimum sentences -- omitting the drug quantity simply raised the issue.
Sessions' memo directly reverses that policy. He has ordered all US Attorneys to disclose the quantity of drugs involved or seek "supervisory approval" from the Justice Department.
Mandatory-minimum drug sentences are really harsh
Whatever you may think of drug users, you should know that our federal drug sentences are really harsh. They can quite easily result in life behind bars, even for low-level offenders, and there is unfairness that is associated with race. Crack cocaine, which is primarily used by blacks, results in sentences 18 times as long as those for powder cocaine, primarily used by whites.
If you are arrested for even a low-level drug crime, you need an attorney. Now is not the time to plead guilty and hope everything will be all right.