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May 15, 2017

The challenge of taking stock of impact of Holder Memos to gauge possible impact of new Sessions Memo

As reported and reviewed a bit here, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued on Friday this important new charging and sentencing memorandum to direct the work of federal prosecutors.  As I stated in my first post about what will be known as the Sessions Memo, I think this is a very big deal in terms of both the substantive instructions and enforcement tone being set for federal prosecutors by the new Attorney General.

But just how big a deal is the Sessions Momo?  This is a critical question that really cannot be answered for years, and all the nuanced particulars involved here cannot be unpacked in a single blog post.  But I still thought it might be useful this morning to explain what I see as the challenge of figuring out how big a deal the Sessions Memo really is.  And part of that story relates, as the title of this post suggests, to the uncertainty that must still attend any assessment of the impact and import of different charging memos released by former Attorney General Eric Holder.

To begin, I think nearly everyone who follows modern crime and punishment generally accepts what John Pfaff has been stressing for a decade concerning the impact and import of prosecutors on the severity of our criminal justice system and the size of our prison populations.  At the risk of oversimplification, Pfaff has effectively highlighted that how prosecutors do their work matters so much practically to who goes into prison and for how long.  Consequently, new DOJ instructions about how federal prosecutors must do their work would seem to be a very big deal.  (Of course, Pfaff also stresses that the federal criminal justice system prosecutes and imprisons less than 10% of all those subject to prosecution throughout the US, so there is necessarily some ceiling on how much new guidance toward federal prosecutors will impact the nation as a whole.)

Because prosecutors matter a lot, federal prosecutorial policies matter a lot.  But just how much?  Notably, former Attorney General Eric Holder issued at least three significant guidance memos to federal prosecutions: a first one in May 2010 allowing more charging/sentencing discretion, a second one in Aug 2013 urging less use of certain mandatory minimums, and a third one in Sept 2014 cautioning again using certain charges to induce a plea in drug cases.  Arguably, the May 2010 general charging/sentencing memo was the most consequential and far-reaching of AG Holder's instructions to federal prosecutors.  But if you look at the basic data assembled in this NBC News discussion of the Sessions Memo, federal prosecutorial charging practices did not appear to change all that much until after AG Holder in Aug 2013 really delivered aggressively and consistently the message that DOJ was now taking a much different approach to drug cases and others.

In some subsequent posts, I hope to unpack more fully the data on federal prosecutorial practices in the Obama years under AG Holder's guidance.  For now, my goal was to highlight that we did not see a massive sea change in federal prosecutions or sentences as soon as AG Holder first announced new guidance in May 2010.  (I also must note for those eager to praise Prez Obama and AG Holder for their reform efforts, note how Holder was not so quick off the dole.  AG Sessions set forth his policy by May of his first year in office; AG Holder took until May of his second year in charge.)  Importantly, it seems it was really only when AG Holder fully doubled down, in speeches and policy directives and other actions, on charting a much different prosecutorial path starting in August 2013 that the numbers in the federal system saw some real significant movement.  I hope to discuss that movement and its meaning in coming posts as well.

So, after a lot of words, my message here is stay tuned:  stay tuned to this blog for some coming number crunching about the Holder legacy and Sessions course change, and also stay tuned to see how AG Sessions and others inside DOJ and other parts of the Trump Administration follow up on this initial memo.  What follows may prove to be much more important than what we have seen so far.

Prior recent related posts: 

May 15, 2017 at 11:18 AM | Permalink


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