Attorney General Jeff Sessions today issued a sweeping update to the Department of Justice's criminal charging policy, one that has some New York officials and advocates fearful that the War on Drugs may be returning to levels not seen since the 1980s. In a brief-but-consequential memo released to the public on Friday, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to charge drug suspects with the most serious, provable crimes carrying the most severe penalties.
The memo immediately overturns former Attorney General Eric Holder's directive that prosecutors avoid charging some low level defendants with drug offenses carrying long mandatory minimum sentences. Following the memo's release, Holder issued a blistering statement calling the policy "unwise and ill-informed," and "a reversal driven by voices who have not only been discredited but until now have been relegated to the fringes of this debate."
Likewise, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman took to Twitter to blast the new "mass incarceration policy," which he says represents a "return to the politics of fear over fact." The Tweetstorm, which a spokesman referred us to as the AG's official comment on the matter, also contains a short history lesson on the evolution of New York's drug policy.
To understand where we’re going, it’s important to take stock of where we’ve been. There’s no better example than New York.
— Eric Schneiderman (@AGSchneiderman) May 12, 2017
Prior to 2009, Schneiderman notes, "the Rockefeller Drug Laws eliminated judges' sentencing discretion and required them to impose harsh prison sentences on drug offenders." The repeal of those laws led to a drop in recidivism, crime and the prison population, while also kicking off a nationwide movement for more humane drug policy, according to Schneiderman.
Now, despite years of progress, some drug policy experts are worried that the shift in DOJ priorities could signal a return to that bygone era of draconian laws and strict enforcement.
"It's really the chilling effect of what Sessions is doing," Jeremy Saunders, co-executive director of VOCAL New York, told Gothamist. While he noted that the vast majority of drug charges in New York aren't prosecuted at the federal level, Saunders said he's still "worried this sends a message to every district attorney in the state who's been wanting to adopt a harsher stance on drugs."
Saunders added that the shift in policy could have especially dangerous ripple effects at a time when the state is dealing with a new sort of drug crisis.
"More people in New York are dying of overdoses than we've ever had in history, both on the city and state level," Saunders said. "First, the healthcare bill sent a clear message that Trump has no intention of fighting the opioid epidemic, now Jeff Sessions is doing the criminal justice equivalent to the Philippines' president's extrajudicial killings."
While that may sound extreme, the Sessions memo has clearly united a broad group of interests in sounding the alarm. On Friday, the billionaire Koch brothers came out against the harsh punishments, noting that "there are less costly and more effective ways to help low level offenders...other than incarceration." The former head of the DOJ civil rights division said that, "the memo is truly a throwback to failed drug war policy," but added she was hopeful that it could be overcome by "momentum" on the state and local level.
"Just as people fought back against Trump's attacks against immigrants and sanctuary cities, we need our electeds here to stand up against this," Saunders echoed.
Neither Governor Cuomo nor Mayor de Blasio have offered a statement on the memo. Representatives from either office could not be reached for comment.
Also on Friday, the NYPD's largest union appointed Jeff Sessions as an honorary member, despite the DOJ's recent accusation that the city is "soft on crime." During the ceremony, the president of the police union thanked the attorney general for "putting public safety ahead of parochial politics, political correctness, and special interests."