There aren't too many issues today that Republicans and Democrats can come together in agreement on, but both conservatives and liberals are expressing concern after Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions issued a memo last week instructing federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious and provable offenses.
On May 10, Sessions issued a memo to federal prosecutors telling them to "pursue the most serious, readily provable offense," which some believe rolls back the policy of President Barack Obama's former Attorney Gen. Eric Holder, who instructed prosecutors to avoid charging nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences if they meet certain criteria.
Obama-era leniency pertaining to low-level drug crimes helped keep nonviolent offenders out of prison, proponents claim. According to Pew Research, the number of sentenced prisoners in federal custody fell by at least 5 percent since the end of 2009 and the end of 2015.
Although it is no surprise to see Democrats condemning the memo issued by President Donald Trump's Republican attorney general, some prominent conservatives have also let their reservations about the memo be known, the most prominent being former presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Paul wrote an op-ed published by CNN earlier this week.
"The attorney general on Friday made an unfortunate announcement that will impact the lives of millions of Americans: he issued new instructions for prosecutors to charge suspects with the most serious provable offenses, 'those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.'" Paul wrote.
"The attorney general's new guidelines, a reversal of a policy that was working, will accentuate the injustice in our criminal justice system," Paul added. "We should be treating our nation's drug epidemic for what it is — a public health crisis, not an excuse to send people to prison and turn a mistake into a tragedy."
Paul also stated that he and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., plan to again introduce the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would amend law to allow judges to impose a sentence below the statutory mandatory minimum should nonviolent defendants of high-level drug crimes meet circumstantial requirements.
Paul and Sessions, when he was an Alabama Senator, were opposite sides of the debate in the last Congress to pass the Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would have reduced mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenders if the bill had been able to pass through Congress.
The bill received bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by other conservatives senators, like Mike Lee of Utah, John Cornyn of Texas, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Pat Nolan, a longtime criminal justice reform advocate who serves as the the director of the American Conservative Union Foundation's Center for Criminal Justice Reform, told The Christian Post on Wednesday that he feels Sessions' memo is a bit "misguided."
Nolan, a former California State Assembly Republican Leader who was recruited by Chuck Colson to serve at Prison Fellowship's policy arm when he was released from prison in the 1990s, explained that the Sessions memo puts pressure on Congress to pass sentencing reform measures.
"I admire [Sessions] a lot and I have worked with him on several pieces of legislation that are very good. But in this case, I think it's misguided and it will discourage efforts that prosecutors have been doing successfully in recent years to get the low-level people into treatment. It is proven effective and prison is proven ineffective," Nolan said.
But Nolan reiterated the fact that Sessions' memo essentially tells prosecutors to follow the laws that are already on the books and that it is up to Congress to make it so prosecutors and judges have "flexibility to differentiate between drug trafficker and the person who got hooked after being legitimately on the drug" no matter who the attorney general is.
Nolan stated that the memo seems to be related to Trump's initiative to fight the opioid epidemic. However, Nolan stressed that the way the sentencing laws are written, instituting maximum sentences on low-level users of the drug who got hooked on it won't address the underlying addiction.
"And we know an effective way to help them get off it. That's where our effort ought to be," Nolan said. "Meanwhile throwing the book at the people who are dealing in drugs as a business."
"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 added. "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."
Jason Pye, the director of public policy and legislative affairs at the D.C.-based conservative and Libertarian advocacy group FreedomWorks, told CP in a statement that he too is "concerned" by the Sessions memo.
"Attorney General Jeff Sessions' memo is concerning," Pye said. "Being tough on non-violent crime by handing out years and years of taxpayer-funded jail time is at the very least overkill and counterproductive."
Craig DeRoche, Prison Fellowship's senior vice president of advocacy and public policy, told CP on Tuesday that Sessions memo is essentially admitting that the law is failing. In fact, the memo leaves open the possibility for prosecutors to use "good judgement" to determine cases in which the "strict application" of the law is "not warranted" and when exemptions to the sentencing law should be considered.
"It's pretty straightforward. The attorney general is saying, 'This is the law of our land. Even though it is backward and it doesn't work, we are going to do it, because it's the law,'" DeRoche said. "'It's expensive and it's obviously led to more drug use in America, not less, more death and more crime but we are going to double-down on it because that's what Congress has passed the laws to do.'"
DeRoche said that the memo should serve as an "invitation for Christians" to speak up and call on Congress to pass sentencing reform measures that will alleviate some of the failures in the current law.
"It presents us with a great opportunity to do the difficult thing and actually change the law," he said. "I think what Attorney General Holder did was he said, 'I can take some of the failure out of these laws and use my executive privilege to do that.' In a way the [Sessions memo] forces this issue and should be motivating to Christians and conservative politicians."
"We are losing too many people to addiction and drug use. Why don't we change the way that we address this issue together?" DeRoche asked. "This is an issue where there is a lot of bipartisan support, not just in the middle, but from the furthest left to the furthest right. As Christians, let's push our voice and have Congress change the law."