Trump Justice Dept. could shift drug prosecution policies

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Indiana Lawyer on November 23, 2016 by AP

An Obama administration Justice Department that emphasized the need to be “smart on crime” is being replaced with a Trump presidency that campaigned on being “tough on crime.”

The difference between those two philosophies remains to be seen, but one area where the divide is likely to be felt most acutely is in the thousands of drug cases the Justice Department prosecutes annually.

If confirmed as attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and former prosecutor, would inherit a Justice Department that’s pursued dramatic changes in the treatment of nonviolent drug criminals. Department leaders, most prominently former Attorney General Eric Holder, have directed prosecutors to limit their use of mandatory minimum punishments, sought to roll back a sentencing structure they see as overly harsh and encouraged the early release of hundreds of inmates.

Sessions is expected to bring a different perspective, given President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign warnings that crime in America is “out of control” and his posturing as a law-and-order candidate. Since Sessions opposed legislation this year to revamp the criminal justice system, his selection as attorney general also represents a probable setback for broader overhaul efforts that have stalled in Congress even with the support of the Justice Department.

“I think it slows down reform efforts a little bit nationally,” said Inimai Chettiar, justice program director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “Even though the president doesn’t necessarily have the power to change all of the state and local laws, having a national champion was really important.”

Sessions “adamantly opposed very moderate efforts to reform sentencing laws,” Chettiar added. “He’s definitely not a mainstream conservative when it comes to the criminal justice system.”

The Justice Department’s drug policy is important given the sheer volume of defendants moved through the federal system. Nearly half the Bureau of Prisons population is behind bars for drug offenses, which in fiscal year 2015 was the most common type of federal crime, with 22,631 cases, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.