DENVER – Three of Colorado’s district attorneys are among dozens of local and state prosecutors from across the country who have signed on to a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions discussing their concerns over a new directive calling for maximum sentences for low-level offenders.
Last week, Sessions sent a memo to U.S. attorneys requiring them to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” that alleged criminals are accused of, and to pursue cases that “carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.”
His directive immediately set off a storm in the criminal justice world, as it stands in direct contradiction of Obama-era policies aimed at reducing prison populations by exonerating low-level drug offenders. Some said Sessions was trying to bring the U.S. back to the “war on drugs” policies of the Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies.
Sessions had said numerous times as a U.S. senator that getting rid of mandatory minimum sentences harmed law enforcement efforts, which defense attorneys and other members of Congress disagreed with.
But Friday, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, Breckenridge District Attorney Bruce Brown and Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett signed on to the letter opposing Sessions’ directives, along with 28 other current or former district attorneys, city attorneys and attorneys general.
They wrote that the directive “marks an unnecessary and unfortunate return to past ‘tough on crime’ practices that we now know simply don’t enhance or promote the safety of our communities.”
“There is no empirical evidence to suggest that increases in sentences, particularly for low-level offenses, decrease the crime rate,” they wrote, adding that the idea that long-term sentences served as a deterrent for future criminal action was “questionable at best.”
The letter says that not only will there be “definitive and significant” actual costs to imprisoning more people, the “reinvigorated…failed ‘war on drugs’” would have a “human cost as well.”
“Instead of providing people who commit low-level drug offenses or who are struggling with mental illness with treatment, support and rehabilitation programs, the policy will subject them to decades of incarceration,” the letter says.
The prosecutors also pointed out that a February paper by Law Enforcement Leaders says that officers “need not use arrest, conviction and prison as the default response for every broken law.”
The prosecutors wrote that they would continue to use “innovative approaches” to prosecuting crimes in their respective jurisdictions.
“It is through these priorities that prosecutors can best advance public safety and fortify trust in the legitimacy of our criminal justice system,” they wrote.
Sessions’ directive puts no exact timeline in place for the changes to happen. A bipartisan group of congressmen have introduced a bill seeking to counteract Sessions' directive.