Bipartisan Senate Group Slams Jeff Sessions' 'Counterproductive' Sentencing Guidelines

(Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar)U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., an advisor to U.S. President Elect Donald Trump, speaks to members of the Media in the lobby of Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York November 17, 2016.

Two prominent conservative senators involved in the criminal justice reform movement have voiced their concerns with the sentencing guideline memoranda issued by Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions last month that directs federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious offense possible against defendants.

Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah have teamed up with Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey to send a letter to President Donald Trump's top Justice Department official on Wednesday regarding his May 10 memoranda. The memo overturned Obama-era policy that enabled prosecutors to avoid charging certain defendants with offenses that have mandatory minimum sentences attached.

The senators' argue that Sessions' memoranda on "Department Charging and Sentencing Policy" could exacerbate the fact that the U.S. law requires certain first-time nonviolent offenders to be handed unfair and unnecessarily long sentences.

"We write concerning the Department of Justice's May 10, 2017 memoranda directing federal prosecutors to pursue the 'most serious, readily provable offense.' The Department's new policy ignores the growing bipartisan view that federal sentencing laws are in grave need of reform," the letter reads. "In many cases, the new policy will result in counterproductive sentences that do nothing to make the public safer. And it appears to force the hand of the prosecutors closest to each case to seek the highest possible offense rather than enable them to determine an appropriate lesser charge, which can help guard against imposing excessive sentences."

The letter agreed with the fact that the policy seems "based on the premise" that it is most important to "enforce the law fairly and consistently."

"The problem is that, in many cases, current law requires nonviolent first-time offenders to receive longer sentences than violent criminals. Sentences of this kind not only '[undermine] respect for our legal system,' but ruin families and have a corrosive effect on communities, and are not likely to reduce recidivism," the letter explains, citing a 2012 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. "Cases like those of Weldon Angelos, Alton Mills and others counter the Department's claim that '[b]y definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guideline sentences.'"

The senators' letter also contend that the guideline "overvalues consistency" in sentencing "at the expense of an individualized assessment by the appropriate penalty." The letter argues that the policy will likely "reduce prosecutors discretion" in deciding which charges are most appropriate to pursue.

The senators admit that the memoranda does leave the door open for "exceptions to the general rule that prosecutors most pursue the most serious, readily provable offense." However, they point out that "any deviation" from that rule would require approval and a written explanation from the prosecutor. The senators believe that such a policy could deter prosecutors from trying to deviate from seeking the most serious and provable offense.

"We therefore question whether this exception will be sufficient to ensure that prosecutors are able to make an individualized determination as the appropriate sentence or to safeguard against overly harsh sentences imposed pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines," the letter reads.

The letter lists six questions that it hopes the department will answer so that they can "better understand" the policy and "evaluate its likely effects."

The letter questions whether the Sessions' Justice Department concluded that Obama-era policies resulted in an unfair application of the law. It also questions whether or not the department did a review or studied the impact that the policy would have on deterring crime and reducing recidivism. The letter also asks if there are any mandatory minimum sentences that the department considers to be "unfair."

The Christian Post reached out the Justice Department for comment on the letter.

"The Department of Justice has an obligation under the United States Constitution to faithfully execute the laws passed by Congress, an ethical duty of candor to the courts, and a responsibility to the American people to ensure that justice is done," a Justice Department spokesperson told The Christian Post in an email.

"The directives in the memo guarantee that prosecutors treat all defendants fairly, equitably, and uniformly and that the charges that a defendant faces should not depend on the particular prosecutor who charges the case nor the district in which charges are brought."

The letter comes after criminal justice reform advocates from both sides of the political aisle have criticized and questioned the memo.

Pat Nolan, the director of the American Conservative Union Foundation's Center for Criminal Justice Reform and a longtime criminal justice reform advocate, told CP last month that he feels Sessions' memo is a bit "misguided."

However, he stressed that Sessions' memo really shows the need for Congress to pass reforms so that prosecutors and judges have the legal "flexibility to differentiate between drug trafficker and the person who got hooked after being legitimately on the drug."

"By sending someone that is not a real criminal to prison, they become more dangerous because the skills they learn to have to survive inside our violent prisons change how they react to situations," Nolan said. "As Newt Gingrich once said, 'If you put a low-level drug offender in with a rapist or a murderer, who do you think is going to come out more like the other?' It's a matter of public safety that we don't want to be locking up these people that don't have malignant hearts."

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