Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates Calls Out AG Sessions On Mandatory Minimum Sentencing
“Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled back the clock to the 1980s, reinstating the harsh, indiscriminate use of mandatory minimum drug sentences imposed at the height of the crack epidemic.”
Writing an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired earlier this year by Donald Trump after refusing to enact the so-called “Muslim ban,” publicly expressed her concern and outrage over the renewal of federal minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses.
There are many reasons a federal minimum for drug sentencing is harmful: many end up in jail for decades or even the duration of their lifetime for non-violent crimes as a result of minimum sentences, which are also the reason for a significant boom in prison population, resulting in the US having the largest prison population, which costs taxpayers a whopping $80 Billion per year. It also has a human cost: 2 million children, including 1 in 9 African American children, are living with a parent in prison, and high incarceration rates can result in the community instability that can encourage violent crime. Locking people away for decades, or for the rest of their lives, does nothing to improve our communities and arguably harms our safety in the long run, increasing distrust for law enforcement and requiring money that could increase training for police, education for the public, and a variety of other programs that would target the cause of the problem, not the people.
This isn’t an unusual assertion: there’s bipartisan support to move away from minimum sentencing and the kind of “lock it up and forget about it” approach to the so-called “War on Drugs.” This includes Republican stalwarts like the Koch Brothers and Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. We have so few issues that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, but this is one that is generally accepted across the spectrum. So why is AG Sessions changing that?
In May, Sessions reinstated minimum sentencing laws, citing a non-existent rise in violent crime–the same reasoning he gives for wanting to enforce federal pot laws in states that have legalized marijuana–as his reasoning. “That argument just isn’t supported by the facts. Not only are violent crime rates still at historic lows – nearly half of what they were when I became a federal prosecutor in 1989 – but there is also no evidence that the increase in violent crime some cities have experienced is the result of drug offenders not serving enough time in prison,” Yates pointed out in the op-ed. “In fact, a recent study by the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission found that drug defendants with shorter sentences were actually slightly less likely to commit crimes when released than those sentenced under older, more severe penalties.”
States like Oregon are moving on this with laws like Oregon’s recent defelonization of drugs like heroin, cocaine, and meth, but this timewarp in federal policy will put us back years in the struggle and put untold numbers of non-violent people behind bars. Laws like this have often put people behind bars on marijuana offenses, something that the Obama Administration did significant work to prevent and fix, pardoning dozens of people incarcerated on marijuana possession charges. Now, we’re back to square one.