JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump has long put law and order at the top of his White House agenda. But today’s move to seek tougher prison sentencing policies marks the biggest effort yet to dismantle his predecessor’s criminal justice reform legacy.
Hari Sreenivasan has the story.
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. Attorney General: I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious offense, as I believe the law requires, most serious readily provable offense. It means that we are going to meet our responsibility to enforce the law with judgment and fairness.
HARI SREENIVASAN: With that, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors across the country to revive some of the toughest practices of the decades-old war on drugs.
JEFF SESSIONS: I trust our prosecutors in the field to make good judgments. They deserve to be unhandcuffed and not micromanaged from Washington. If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way. We will not be willfully blind to your misconduct.
HARI SREENIVASAN: This memo reverses Obama administration policies that aimed to lessen the federal prison population by not charging low-level nonviolent drug offenders with long mandatory minimum sentences.
In 2013, then Attorney General Eric Holder told prosecutors to leave drug quantities out of charging documents to cut down on unduly harsh sentences that didn’t — quote — “promote public safety deterrence and rehabilitation.”
These directives coincided with U.S. sentencing commission changes and Obama administration clemency initiatives that provided second chances for low-level federal drug offenders. That led to a sharp decline in the federal prison population. In 2013, the federal prison population sat at nearly 220,000. Today, that number stands just under 190,000.
In reaction to Sessions’ memo today, former Attorney General Holder called the move “dumb on crime.” And Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said these new policies will accentuate the injustice of “unfairly incarcerating a disproportionate amount of minorities.”
In March, President Trump created a new national commission to combat the opioid crisis.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Drug abuse has become a crippling problem throughout the United States.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Today, Sessions listed the opioid epidemic and a spike in violence in big cities as reasons for this return to harsher sentences.
JEFF SESSIONS: Drug trafficking is an inherently dangerous and violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it with the barrel of a gun.
HARI SREENIVASAN: In the memo, Sessions does leave discretion up to prosecutors to avoid unjust sentences, but those exceptions would need to be approved and documented.
For more, we are joined by two former directors of the White House Office of National Drug Control, known more commonly as the country’s drug czars.
Gil Kerlikowske served as President Obama’s drug policy adviser from 2009 to 2014, before becoming commissioner of Customs and Border Patrol. He retired from that post in January. And John Walters served as drug czar for all eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. He is the chief operating officer of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.
Thank you both for joining us.
John Walters, let me start with you.
Don’t mandatory minimums handcuff judges, take away some of their discretion, and disproportionately affect the poor and people of color?
JOHN WALTERS, Hudson Institute: Well, what they do is, they target in the federal level more senior traffickers. And they try to protect people from this horrible drug epidemic.
I think the issue is whether or not we’re going to have equity across the system. Some of these were created for two reasons, one, to create equity across the system for serious offenses, so that some people in some places or shopping judges wasn’t a way to avoid a fair and equal punishment.
Two, the sentences were used to create evidence from individuals pending conviction to help break down whole drug organizations. They worked. We need them now. We have the most deadly drug epidemic in the history of the United States under way.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Gil Kerlikowske, does this dismantle in some ways some of what you started to accomplish as drug czar in your administration and perhaps slow the momentum for what seems to be a bipartisan approach and understanding towards criminal justice reform?
GIL KERLIKOWSKE, Former U.S. Drug Policy Director: Well, in some ways, it does, but let’s separate the opioid epidemic.
When I took office in 2009, it wasn’t really on the public’s radar screen. These are pills. These are not being smuggled in across the country. They’re not being manufactured in some garage. This is driven by our medical practices, which, by the way, is governed at the state level.
So try to separate out the opioid issue. The heroin issue is different, although it certainly is connected. But if you’re a trafficker, a drug trafficker, I couldn’t agree more with what the attorney general said, because if you’re a drug trafficker and you’re indicted by the federal government, it’s usually for a substantial amount of drugs, and so that’s important.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Gil Kerlikowske, I also want to ask, does this — what about the argument that Jeff Sessions makes that says that this takes the handcuffs off of prosecutors?
Prosecutors have been complaining for some time that they can’t use a large sentence as leverage to get the type of information that they need.
GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, the large sentence can be helpful.
But, remember, too, there are finite resources in the Department of Justice. There are finite jail space availability in the federal government. And so reserving those spaces and reserving those prosecutors for the most serious crimes is very important.
I spent almost eight years in the administration, all but four months. I met with a number of U.S. attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys. I didn’t hear them complaining about the way they were being dealt with by what’s fondly called main justice.
HARI SREENIVASAN: John Walters, I want to ask, you mentioned the heroin epidemic, and Gil also seconded that.
What about going after the distribution and the manufacture? I mean, I have to show I.D. to get a bottle of NyQuil over the counter, yet a town in West Virginia of a population of 800 can get 300,000 pills shipped to it over a few years.
JOHN WALTERS: Yes, I think the enforcement of the diversion of drugs, pill mills and other kinds of diversion of synthetic opioids are important.
But, today, that was what was happening in five, six years ago. Today, the death rate is driven by criminally produced synthetic fentanyl and heroin. And this is killing more people every year than all the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Secretary of HHS Price mentioned that. In addition, that number is accelerating. What happened is, we have lost control of these organizations, and we need to be able to enforce the law.
You yourself have had the author of “Dreamland” on this program, the story of the pills and heroin coming together to create this carnage. He notes that some of these gangs were parking outside drug treatment centers to give free samples of heroin to people to readdict them or to keep them from getting into treatment.
Those people need to go to jail. We need to assign a much larger effort. We need to stop talking about there is limited resources in the federal system and the state system. We need to bring together public health efforts to bring people into treatment and we need to stop the flow of this poison.
It is killing more Americans than all gun and automobile accidents combined. And it’s accelerating. And, in addition to that, cocaine production out of Colombia is going back to the old track days.
We are in the midst of facing a perfect storm, and we’re not on top of it. We need law enforcement to work, as we need treatment to work.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Gil Kerlikowske, he’s pointing to the inflow of drugs from outside. The president has proposed a border wall. You were the head of Border and Customs.
Will a border wall work to stop what he’s describing?
GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, one, the border wall certainly won’t work, because when we talk about heroin and fentanyl — and let’s be clear — 17,000 people perished as a result of the pills in the United States.
That’s considerably more than the heroin coming into the United States. But heroin and fentanyl, a very powerful painkiller, come in between — or at our ports of entry. People carry it on their persons. People try to conceal it in vehicles.
If you wanted to slow that down, you would actually not worry so much about a wall. You would actually give more resources, drug-sniffing dogs, technology at our ports of entry, not between our ports.
HARI SREENIVASAN: John Walters, I want to give you a chance to respond.
JOHN WALTERS: Yes, I think, look, fentanyl is a change, and it’s now the driving forces in many of these deaths.
But the vast majority of the drugs killings Americans are coming from overseas. The vast majority of those are coming over the Mexican border. The vast majority of those walk within six feet of a uniformed border agent. This is a significant and dramatic failure of intelligence and operations.
We need the cooperation of the Mexicans. We need to do a better job. The deaths in this country are going to approach 100,000 a year pretty soon, and it’s already staggering.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Gil Kerlikowske, John Walters, thank you both.