Former Federal Prosecutors Challenge Attorney General On Sentencing Policy

May 30, 2017

More than two dozen former federal prosecutors from western Washington are pushing back against new guidance from the Trump administration.

The former U.S. attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys have written an open letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In that letter they respond forcefully to his May 10 memo that orders federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” they can.

This marks a reversal of Obama-era policy that aimed to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences in lower-level cases.

Former Yakima County Prosecutor Jeff Sullivan served as U.S. attorney for western Washington under George W. Bush and signed the letter to Sessions.

“I think it’s appropriate for the United States attorney and the prosecutors that handle these cases to make individualized decisions and that can include not charging certain offenses so that the mandatory minimum doesn’t take effect,” Sullivan said.

Another former U.S. attorney, Kate Pflaumer, who served under President Bill Clinton, also signed the letter.

“He’s making just a phenomenal mistake as to what is useful in curbing crime,” Pflaumer said of Sessions.

In his memo, Sessions wrote that the new policy on charging and sentencing “affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency.”

Besides requiring federal prosecutors to seek the most serious charge they can prove, it also requires them not to deviate from sentencing guidelines when recommending a sentence to a judge.

The memo does allow for exceptions to the policy if approved by a United States attorney or an assistant attorney general.

In their letter, the prosecutors wrote that the “War on Crime” and “War on Drugs” failed and Sessions now “seeks to reprise those ineffectual and counter-productive doctrines” that “didn’t work before and [that] won’t work this time, either.”

Two former U.S. attorneys who worked for Republicans presidents delivered a similar message Tuesday in an op-ed in The Seattle Times. Brothers John and Mike McKay of Seattle called Sessions’ memo “wrongheaded” and said it amounted to “[t]urning the clock back to the 1980s.”

“It will take us back to old practices and patterns that have been seriously discredited,” the brothers wrote.

The letter from the former prosecutors to Sessions also urges him to reconsider his decision to eliminate President Barack Obama’s 30-member National Commission on Forensic Science. It was tasked with advising the attorney general on ways to strengthen the reliability of forensic science.

“None of us is made safer when people are wrongly convicted,” the letter reads. “Indeed, such miscarriages only foster cynicism concerning the state of justice in the United States.”

The Department of Justice is currently seeking public comment on proposals to replace the Commission that would “improve the underlying science and validity of forensic evidence.”