Overturning a 2013 memo from the Obama Administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has just ordered prosecutors to ensure sentencing judges have all the information they need to hand down harsh, mandatory minimum sentences — even for low-level drug offenders.
This may come as bitter news to Mississippians who have gotten used to decriminalization. Under state law, a first offense for possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana is punishable by a fine alone, and subsequent low-level offenses like this earn you no more than six months in jail and a $500 fine. (It’s important to remember that, for immigrants, it could still result in deportation.)
Possession of that much marijuana could result in years in prison under the federal sentencing guidelines. Immigrants are almost certain to be referred for deportation.
What is the purpose of mandatory minimum drug sentences?
There is some disagreement on what the original purpose of these harsh sentencing guidelines was. According to FindLaw, Congress passed the laws in 1986 in an effort to crack down on high-level drug distributors. However, it’s certainly the case that the laws always applied to low-level offenders, as well.
After several decades, however, we now know that the sentencing guidelines are sending far too many people to prison for far too long a time — the mass incarceration crisis. Many people have called for substantial revisions in the guidelines in order to compensate for this unintended consequence. However, then-Senator Sessions was instrumental in blocking a bipartisan reform bill just last year, according to the Atlantic.
Attorney General Sessions states we should take Congress at its word even when Congress appears to have changed its mind.
“It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” reads the new policy memo. “This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us. By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory-minimum sentences.”