Mandatory minimums require that people convicted of certain federal crimes serve a sentence of a given length. In the case of murder or rape or child molestation, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But in 1986, Congress established mandatory-minimum sentencing for drug possession, including marijuana, in its Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The policy resulted in thousands of people spending decades behind bars for nonviolent crimes.
Black offenders were most affected by the law, and the minority prison population exploded after it passed — until the last few years. Under the Obama administration, attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch allowed federal prosecutors to make sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis, leading to the first decline in the federal prison population in thirty years.
Even the Koch brothers, of all people, supported similar sentencing reform.
But there’s a new sheriff in town, and AG Jeff Sessions is just itching to bring back these antiquated guidelines, asking federal prosecutors in May to return to using them.
But Sessions swears it’s not because he’s racist. In a column for The Washington Post, he equated a supposed rise in violent crime during the last few years to no other cause besides lenient drug sentencing.
In his opinion, every drug dealer is an Avon Barksdale-type who is masterminding a city-wide trade with a high body count.
And “it’s not our privileged communities that suffer the most from crime and violence,” he wrote. “Minority communities are disproportionately impacted by violent drug trafficking.”
Sessions has such a great record of defending minority communities in the past — just ask Coretta Scott King circa 1986 — so it should come as no surprise that he’s so concerned with the plight of people of color in 2017.
But in her own WaPo op-ed, martyred former attorney general Sally Yates disagreed, citing bipartisan majorities on the failure of mandatory-minimum policies and refuting many of Sessions’ claims about violent crime, under the headline “Making America scared again won’t make us safer.”
Most federal prosecutors in the country support sentencing reform, but they have a boss to answer to. And for Sessions, it’s more important to be hard on crime than smart on crime.