The New DOJ Policy on Charging Decisions

Two weeks ago, the new U.S. Attorney General announced a new policy for charging and sentencing in criminal cases. Although the policy targets drug cases in particular, it applies to all federal prosecutions.

You can break it down into three parts.

First, prosecutors should file the “most serious, readily-provable” charges in each case. The most serious charges are those that carry the stiffest sentence, including any mandatory-minimum sentence. To deviate from this policy, prosecutors must get approval from a supervisor, document their reasons for it, and be able to point to “unusual facts.”

Second, in most cases, prosecutors should seek a standard sentence under federal sentencing guidelines. If they want to deviate from the guideline sentence, they must get supervisory approval and document their reasons in the file.

Third, prosecutors should discard inconsistent policies of the prior administration. Under prior policy, prosecutors still charged the most serious offense that was consistent with a defendant’s conduct and likely to yield a solid conviction. But they were also encouraged to evaluate cases individually to decide which charges to file, and they were told to seek sentences that were fair and proportional under all the circumstances.

In particular, prosecutors now must ignore two prior policies that tried to reduce harsh sentences in low-level, nonviolent drug cases. Under one policy, they were not to charge a specific drug quantity if it triggered a mandatory-minimum sentence, and they were to avoid charging prior drug convictions that doubled the minimum sentence or put someone in prison for life. We wrote about this before here. Under the other policy, they could not threaten to charge such priors just to force you to plead guilty. I guess that’s fair game now.

The new policy has sparked criticism across the spectrum. Lawmakers from both parties have railed against it. One former U.S. Attorney decried its “stunning lack of faith” in line prosecutors. A coalition of state and local prosecutors has published an open letter against it. And the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had this reaction:

“This Attorney General has taken away the discretion of professional prosecutors to determine what sentence serves justice in any given case. Instead, prosecutors are now required in every case mindlessly to seek the maximum possible penalty…. This policy will lock up non-violent offenders with little or no criminal history, waste untold millions of dollars, devastate families and whole communities, and yet not make us any safer.”

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