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Will DOJ 'Get-Tough' Policy Increase Federal Drug Prosecutions?


U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a reputation as a drug warrior. He is on record as having once said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was: "OK until I found out they smoked pot." He insists he was joking, but more recent statements reinforce the view that he holds a get-tough attitude when it comes to prosecuting individuals charged with drug crimes.

He showed that leaning again earlier this month when he issued a policy memo to the U.S. attorneys in Tennessee and the rest of the country that he wants them to double down on prosecuting drug crime defendants to the greatest extent federal law allows. What does this mean for defendants going forward?

Possible effect of tough policy

It can be difficult to nail down the full implications of these kinds of policy changes - wrapped as they are in the blanket of politics. Mr. Sessions' direction is clearly in line with his long-standing attitude about the war on drugs. He seems to have the support of the president. But, there are observers who wonder whether the return to Bush-era policy won't lead to a situation of jurisdictional case shift from the federal level to the state level.

For context, it's important to realize that depending on the circumstances of the case, state and federal prosecutors might both have jurisdiction to pursue charges. This gives the government some flexibility in choosing how to proceed.

During the years of the Obama administration, observers say Justice Department policy aimed to give local U.S. attorneys more leeway at the local level to manage what cases to bring to trial. It also sought to reduce instances of regional prosecutors leveraging the threat of enhanced sentencing to coerce guilty pleas.

With the old policies rescinded, some experts predict there will be fewer prosecutions for things like fraud and financial crimes and more drug crime prosecutions. It may well depend on the particular jurisdiction involved. They do suggest, however, that in places where the more lenient prosecution philosophy has taken hold, fewer drug cases will be brought at the federal level and state courts will be busier.

What remains true, regardless of what jurisdiction is used, is that when drug-related charges are brought, they need to be met with a strong legal defense.