WASHINGTON >>The Justice Department’s new policy urging harsher punishments for most criminals is meant to target the worst gang members and drug traffickers, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Friday in an effort to mollify critics who fear a revival of drug war policies.
“We’re not about filling prisons,” Rosenstein told The Associated Press in his first interview since becoming the Justice Department’s No. 2 official. “The mission is to reduce violent crime and drug abuse, and this helps us do that.”
Rosenstein emphasized the department’s plan to fight violent crime that includes prosecutors’ ability to decide whether to level charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences — a carrots-and-sticks approach for gaining cooperation. He acknowledged that federal prosecutors will sometimes charge lower-level criminals to take down entire gangs but “that’s the exception not the rule.”
The longtime top prosecutor in Maryland, Rosenstein came under intense criticism last month as the author of a memo that chastised then-FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email case, which the Trump administration initially cited as justification for Comey’s sudden firing. The president later said he planned to fire Comey no matter what.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directive last month urges federal prosecutors to seek the steepest penalties for most crime suspects, a reversal of Obama-era policies that aimed to reduce the federal prison population and show more leniency to lower-level drug offenders. Sessions’ Democratic predecessor, Eric Holder, told prosecutors they could, in some cases, leave drug quantities out of documents to avoid charging suspects with crimes that trigger yearslong mandatory minimum punishments.
Some prosecutors have said they felt constrained by the Holder directive. Under that old rule, they worried about a loss of plea-bargaining leverage — and a key inducement for cooperation — without the ability to more freely pursue charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences.
Advocates for changes to the criminal justice system assailed the reversal as a return to drug-war era policies that helped ravage minority communities and put even nonviolent drug offenders in prison for long terms. Among the sharpest critics was Holder, who called it an “ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”
Rosenstein said he dutifully implemented Holder’s policy when it was issued in 2013 but believes recent spikes in violence in some cities necessitate a new approach.
Supporters of Holder’s policy “felt like there were too many people in prison and crime rates were falling, and they were hopeful that they could reduce enforcement and keep crime rates low,” he said. “We’re in a different position now.”
Officials will be continually tracking crime statistics in cities that have seen recent spikes in violence. But any change won’t be immediate, Rosenstein said.
Sessions’ directive gives prosecutors leeway to veer from the policy and levy less-serious charges when warranted. And federal prosecutors rarely take cases against “minor offenders,” focusing their attention instead on larger criminal organizations, Rosenstein said.
“We think it’s important in this circumstance in 2017 to restore to our federal prosecutors the authority to use the penalties Congress has given them in cases they think it’s important,” Rosenstein said. “We’re not micromanaging from Washington.”
Rosenstein’s comments did not allay some advocates’ concerns about overcrowded prisons and unfair punishments.
“That might not be the intention, but it’s undoubtedly going to be the outcome,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “This will increase the volume of people behind bars and at considerable expense to the federal government.”