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Will Justice Department changes impact Maryland drug sentencing?

Last year, Maryland lawmakers passed and Gov. Larry Hogan signed the Justice Reinvestment Act. The intent of the law, which received bipartisan support, was to lessen the number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug crimes and redirect funds to providing treatment for those convicted of these crimes.

The law was enacted during the Obama administration, which made efforts on the federal level to decrease the number of prisoners. Specifically, then-Attorney General Eric Holder instructed federal prosecutors to use their discretion regarding sentencing for drug crimes and reserve mandatory minimums for high-level drug traffickers and those who committed violent crimes.

As a result of those efforts, there was a significant decline in the number of people convicted of drug crimes who received mandatory minimum sentences -- from 62 percent when Holder announced his plan in 2013 down to 44 percent in 2016.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, appointed by President Trump, has already taken steps to undo the changes made under President Obama's Department of Justice. Sessions, who has a long history of being tough on drug offenders going back decades, has rescinded two of Holder's memos urging discretion in applying mandatory minimum sentences. He has also instructed DOJ attorneys to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense."

Legislators on both sides of the aisle who were behind Maryland's Justice Reinvestment Act have slammed Sessions' moves to seek more mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of drug crimes. One called them "outrageous." Another said "Basically, the War on Drugs didn't work, and to think that our attorney general is possibly going back to that is just incomprehensible."

One Maryland state senator said that he believes the DOJ should follow the model of Maryland and over 30 other states to place an emphasis on getting people treatment rather than placing them in prison for many years. As one lawmaker noted, "You can't jail your way out of addiction."

One of the legislators said he doubted that Sessions' instructions would realistically impact the sentences sought by federal prosecutors. He said, "They're going to threaten the maximum penalty until they get a plea or something they want."

If you or a loved one has been charged with a drug-related crime, it's essential to know what the potential penalties are. Maryland attorneys experienced in handling this type of case can provide guidance and work to seek the best possible outcome.

Source: Baltimore Sun, "Sessions orders return to tough drug war policies, countering Maryland approach," Joseph Tanfani and Michael Dresser, May 12, 2017

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