By Dan Heyman
A directive from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions could shift additional burdens onto West Virginia’s courts and prisons, and put more minority defendants in jail.
Last Friday, Sessions announced he is directing federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe penalties possible for drug convictions, including mandatory minimum sentences.
Calling the policy shift “a return to the war on drugs of the 1980s and 90s,” Anita Earls, the executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, says it takes the nation backwards when it comes to handling drug offenses.
“I think it’s not justified from a policy perspective,” she says. “It doesn’t make the public safer, it’s not a way to address the problem of drugs. And it’s a change that this administration is making for ideological reasons, without any basis in fact.”
Sessions’ announcement reverses a policy change put in place in 2013 by then-Attorney General Eric Holder, directing prosecutors to avoid charging nonviolent defendants with offenses that would trigger long, mandatory-minimum sentences.
Under the previous policy, Holder instructed prosecutors to pursue lesser charges for defendants who didn’t belong to large-scale drug trafficking operations, gangs or cartels. With the latest change, Earls is concerned about the additional demand on public resources.
“You’re paying for all these people to be incarcerated for life, through your federal tax dollars, so it impacts you in that sense,” she adds. “And those tax dollars could be contributing to the community much more effectively if they were spent in very different ways.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, four of five people serving time for drug offenses are African American or Hispanic.
A report from the U.S. Department of Justice found more than a third of people in federal prison for drug offenses had either no or minimal criminal history prior to their sentence.