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May 18, 2017

Highlighting how the Sessions Memo may have particular impact for drug trafficking cases in certain districts

News2-2-Graph-SentencingWith thanks to commenter Daniel for the tip, I just saw this notable local article from New Mexico providing a notable local perspective on the potential impact of the new Sessions federal charging/sentencing memo.  The article is headlined "Two Steps Back: How Jeff Sessions’ memo on federal prosecutions could take New Mexico back to a harsher era," and here are excerpts:

A directive from newly appointed US Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructing prosecutors to seek the most severe charges available threatens to stunt recent progress toward less federal prison time for low-level drug offenders in New Mexico, defense lawyers and drug policy reform advocates tell SFR.

“Drug mule” cases make up many of the drug crimes prosecuted in federal court in New Mexico, federal public defender John Butcher says. Some low-level drug runners who get caught mid-shipment are apprehended in Albuquerque, the first overnight stop on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train from Los Angeles to Chicago. Others are picked up throughout the federally designated “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area,” which runs east from Farmington down to Santa Fe and into Albuquerque before blanketing most of the southern border from Roswell on. The vast majority of federal drug charges in the state are for trafficking. Possession and brokering drug deals comprise a smaller percentage of crimes.

Drug mule cases, most often involving nonviolent and low-level drug offenders, were among those singled out in a memo issued by former attorney general Eric Holder in August 2013. It encouraged prosecutors not to charge such people with crimes that could trigger stiffer mandatory minimum sentences, which prevent judges from sentencing defendants to prison for fewer than a predetermined number of years. For example, since 1986, federal law has mandated that a person convicted of holding five kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison for a first offense.

Holder asked prosecutors to back off. If somebody was arrested with five kilograms of cocaine, but was not an organizer, did not have deep ties to criminal groups and wasn’t carrying a gun or another indicator of violent intent, prosecutors were asked not to charge that person with the quantity that would have triggered the 10 years. Data from the US Sentencing Commission suggests that some federal prosecutors in New Mexico may have heeded Holder’s directive. It shows that the percentage of sentenced federal drug offenders who received mandatory minimums immediately dropped from 42 percent in 2013 to 25 percent in 2014, and even fell to 20 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which information is available. That’s about half the figure from 2006, the first year the commission began tracking this data. The decrease came even as the number of people prosecuted for trafficking rose from an average of 586 between 2010 and 2012—before the Holder directive—and 646 between 2014 and 2016.

But Sessions has now directed prosecutors to reverse course. The new attorney general wants federal prosecutors to seek the most serious and readily provable charge against all defendants—regardless of circumstance. “This is going to go after the low-level minimum participants with minor records, because they’re the ones who were getting breaks [under Holder],” Butcher tells SFR. “Breaks” didn’t mean that low-level runners weren’t being charged or sentenced to prison after 2013, he says. But in some cases, they weren’t getting the book thrown at them. Butcher suggests the new policy will have an outsized effect in New Mexico, with its relatively higher number of trafficking cases involving nonviolent offenders....

Since 2013, Santa Fe’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, wherein police work with case managers and the local district attorney to enroll low-level offenders in treatment programs, has served as a national example for non-punitive approaches to drug use.  District Attorney Marco Serna doesn’t think there’s much overlap between those who would qualify for LEAD and those who could be charged with a federal drug crime, but he acknowledges that the city’s approach stands in contrast to Sessions’ hardline.  “For nonviolent crimes, we have our own state and local statutes, and luckily I get to influence how we handle it in the first district,” Serna says. “And we won’t be taking that approach.”

Prior recent related posts: 

UPDATE: I just saw this notable new New York Times article which drills even deeper into the impact of the Holder Memo by identifying a number of low-level federal drug offenders who seemingly benefited from more lenient charging practices.  The piece is headlined "5 Years, or 20? How Sessions’ Get-Tough Order Would Extend Prison Stays." and it is interesting to see the cases profiled in the article and even more interesting to consider whether the offenders in the article might have been able, even if charged with more serious offenses, been able to avoid the application of a mandatory minimum sentence through the statutory safety valve or through providing cooperation.

May 18, 2017 at 01:50 PM | Permalink


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