The U.S. Department of Justice released a memo today calling for a return to strict enforcement of mandatory minimum sentencing rules. This change, announced by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, reverses lighter sentencing rules established under the Obama administration.
Obama’s then-attorney general Eric Holder advised prosecutors to avoid pushing longer and tougher sentences in some cases, such as low-level drug offenses, that likely have deeper consequences for communities of color still reeling from the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 2013 memorandum, Holder wrote:
We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers. In some cases, mandatory minimum and recidivist enhancement statutes have resulted in unduly harsh sentences and perceived or actual disparities that do not reflect our Principles of Federal Prosecution. Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation.
There are a staggering 2 million people in the prison system today. Of that number, 37 percent are black men while black people only make up about 12 percent of the population in the U.S.
Statistics show 46 percent of inmates were jailed for drug related reasons.
The ruling echoes the law and order language from President Trump, who has pledged his commitment to supporting police and law enforcement.
It also raises concerns about the racist consequences of Sessions’ policies. In 1986, Coretta Scott King warned the people of Alabama against voting Sessions into office, claiming that his racist policies could create an unsafe atmosphere for people of color. Her words were famously read — and interrupted — on the Senate floor during the Senate confirmation hearings for Sessions in January.
Faith leaders across the country have opposed Sessions’ confirmation as U.S. attorney general with petitions and statements, calling him unfit to make decisions that are helpful to communities of color across the U.S — especially around prison sentencing for black people.
Jim Wallis released a statement in January calling the Sessions confirmation not only a political mistake, but a “moral and religious offense to the theological affirmation that every American citizen is created equal in the image of God.”
Sessions is said to make additional statements about this memo today.
Additional reporting provided by Reuters