Under the Trump administration, Minnesotans could see a reinvigoration of federal drug prosecutions that were deemed low priority during the previous presidency.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo Friday reversing his predecessor’s charging policies, signaling a tougher approach to drug crimes that could trigger mandatory-minimum sentences. And while it’s not unprecedented for a new attorney general to redefine charging mandates, many lamented locally that the announcement could usher back in the policies of previous administrations, which inflated prison populations and created racial disparities in the nation’s corrections system.
“What this is is the formal document that announces the restart of the war on drugs,” said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at the University of St. Thomas law school.
The mandate only directly impacts crimes on the federal level, and time will tell exactly how the administration’s change of course will touch Minnesota. It has the potential to dramatically alter the workload of federal prosecutors in the state, including for whoever fills the seat left vacant by former U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger.
“This policy is going to apply to every federal prosecutor in the state,” said Osler. “It’s going to limit their ability to tailor plea agreements to individual circumstances, and it’s going to push them toward longer sentences and more cases.”
That means Minnesota’s four federal prisons could soon see a population boom, which could in turn open the door for greater need for privately owned prisons.
The new policy could also affect judges’ abilities to use discretion for mitigating factors, such as when low-level dealers get caught up in cases that call for mandatory-minimum sentences, said Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim. “I think you’ll find most judges prefer as much discretion as possible,” Tunheim said. “It doesn’t take too much time as a judge to find out that everybody is different and everybody has unique circumstances to consider.”
At least one federal law enforcement official in Minnesota who is not authorized to speak on the record, said authorities applauded the new policy guidance saying it could lead the U.S. attorney’s office to accept more cases that could produce higher possible prison sentences. Others expressed concern that the move telegraphs a tough-on-crime strategy that’s expensive and ultimately ineffective.
“I was a foot soldier in Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs,” said Jon Hopeman, a veteran defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. “We lost the war. Drugs are more available at cheaper prices. Marijuana, heroin, you name it.”