ERIC HOLDER, WHO as Barack Obama's attorney general declared that "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long," encouraged federal prosecutors to be more judicious in bringing drug charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences. Jeff Sessions, who faults the previous administration for not locking up enough Americans, was quick to rescind Holder's policy after Donald Trump appointed him to run the Department of Justice (DOJ). If prosecutors follow his lead, more drug offenders will be facing long stretches in federal prison.
In a 2010 memo, Holder emphasized the importance of "individualized assessment" in deciding how to charge defendants. Three years later, he went further, telling prosecutors they should omit drug weight, which is what triggers mandatory minimums, from charges against non-violent drug offenders without leadership roles, significant criminal histories, or significant ties to large-scale drug trafficking organizations.
A recent survey of assistant U.S. attorneys by the DOJ's inspector general found that nearly half said they had changed their charging practices in response to Holder's directives. From fiscal year 2010 to fiscal year 2016, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the share of federal defendants convicted of crimes carrying mandatory minimums fell by nearly a fifth, from 27 percent to 22 percent.
The makeup of that group also changed during this period. Drug trafficking defendants facing mandatory minimums in FY 2016 were more likely to be violent, to have significant criminal histories, and to have played...