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Criminal Justice Reform: The Attorney General Steps Back, Members of Congress Push Forward

Criminal Justice Reform: The Attorney General Steps Back, Members of Congress Push Forward

Senator Jeff Sessions looking off camera

Late last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued new charging guidelines that will further expand our country’s oversized prison population, which is already the world’s largest in total number. The Attorney General’s guidelines direct U.S. Attorneys, who are responsible for prosecuting individuals suspected of federal crimes, to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.”

Attorney General Sessions’ policy will result in more offenders receiving charges that carry harsh mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory minimums are often disproportionate to the crime committed and deprive judges of the ability to give sentences that fit the unique circumstances of each transgression. These laws are a significant driver of both the rapid growth in our prison population and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

It is for these reasons that, when he was Attorney General, Eric Holder instructed U.S. Attorneys to avoid charges that would carry mandatory minimums in certain cases. Attorney General Sessions has now overturned these directives and leans toward policies that have increased mass incarceration.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) sharply criticized the new policy, saying “Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated a generation of minorities.” He has also introduced a bill along with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) to grant judges greater discretion in sentencing decisions. The Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 1127/H.R. 2435) expands an existing tool for federal judges to sentence below the mandatory minimum sentence. The bill would expand this tool, known as the safety valve, allowing judges to evaluate cases based on their individual circumstances for all federal crimes. While this bill would not reform the mandatory minimum laws that are currently on the books, it would give judges some flexibility to make sound decisions and deliver proportional sentences. As a result, our prison populations could decline and we could restore a measure of justice to our criminal justice system.

Expanding the safety valve is particularly urgent, as Attorney General Sessions’ new guidelines will put more defendants facing mandatory minimums in front of federal judges. Our Jewish values motivate us to work for a criminal justice system that truly lives up to its name. As the Prophet Ezekiel taught, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn away from his way and live” (33:11). In order to create a criminal justice system that allows criminals to rehabilitate, rather than subjecting them to disproportionate punishment, we must provide relief from harsh mandatory minimum laws. Tell your Member of Congress to support the Justice Safety Valve Act today.

Jacob Kraus is the campaign organizer at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, leading the Reform Movement’s Urgency of Now campaigns for criminal justice reform and immigrant justice. Based at the Union for Reform Judaism offices in New York City, Jacob grew up in Cincinnati, OH, where his family is affiliated with Rockdale Temple. He is a 2015 graduate of Macalester College.

Jacob Kraus

Published: 5/18/2017