Did Holder’s Charging Policy Really Matter? – Update for May 22, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


The media continued its feeding frenzy last week about Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions’ memo rolling back the Obama kinder-and-gentler drug charging and sentencing policies.

sessionsmemo170522Numbers that DOJ cited last year suggest former AG Eric Holder’s Smart on Crime Initiative had a substantial effect on the percentage of federal drug offenders facing mandatory minimums. According to Sentencing Commission data, the share of federal drug offenders subject to mandatory minimums has fallen steadily from 62% of all defendants in 2013 to less than 45% in 2016.

But as Benjamin Disraeli put it, there are three kinds of lies: “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” It turns out the Sentencing Commission number includes drug defendants who did not actually receive mandatory minimums. Many of them were subject to mandatory minimums, but escaped because they gave the feds “substantial assistance” or got “safety valve” treatment.

liesdamnlies170522A Federal Public and Community Defenders analysis, however, did toke those other forms of relief into account. That study found “6,780 defendants convicted under drug statutes carrying a mandatory minimum penalty… received some form of relief from the mandatory minimum penalties. All but 868 of those defendants were already eligible for relief, and judges gave 467 of them sentences longer than the mandatory minimums, which suggests the new rule would not have helped them.”

Out of the 6,780 defendants, only 8% “would likely have received a lower sentence if the Holder memo had been in effect in 2012.” The analysis suggests that the vast majority of drug offenders who seem to have benefited from the Holder 2013 memo — thousands each year — did not actually receive shorter sentences as a result of the policy change.

Deal170216The biggest change in sentencing resulting from the Holder memo is the one few are talking about. By cutting the number of drug defendants eligible for mandatory minimums, the new approach puts less pressure on defendants to cooperate with the feds. Ratcheting up the penalty will again increase the number of defendants willing to make a deal.

Reason.com, How Many Drug Offenders Benefited From the Holder Memo That Sessions Rescinded? (May 17, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


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