And he outlined exceptions for not pursuing mandatory minimum sentences, including if a defendant's crime does not involve violence or if the person doesn't have a leadership role in a criminal organization.
The Obama policy shift coincided with U.S. Sentencing Commission changes that made tens of thousands of federal drug prisoners eligible for early release, and a clemency initiative that freed convicts deemed deserving of a second chance. "That's the era Jeff Sessions wants to return us to".
Some prosecutors opposed Holder's directive, saying it deprived them of a tool for persuading drug crime defendants to plead guilty.
More than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the US.
He painted a portrait of American cities under siege by an epidemic of violent crime - though the nationwide murder rate is at record low levels.
The big change here is that under the Obama-era policy, prosecutors could, in certain circumstances, omit drug quantities from their court documents, in order to trigger shorter sentences for drug offenders who weren't accused of violent crimes.
Sessions' policy is expected to lead to more federal prosecutions as well as increase the inmate populate in federal prisons after years of efforts to reduce both numbers.
But the head of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys says the new guidance will make the public safer.
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Sessions insists that his motives for increasing penalties are aimed towards drug dealers and drug traffickers.
In recent years, however, there has been growing bipartisan interest among some in Congress, the USA states and the courts to reevaluate lengthy prison terms.
Advocates for criminal justice reform say the new policy could result in more crowded prisons because of the lengthier sentences that come with charging the highest provable offense. At that time the Department of Justice also established the "three strikes" policy, which gave offenders life in prison if they had been already had two prior felony convictions. The Sessions memo essentially guarantees a larger federal prison population, ensuring that money that would be better used on preventing crime will be spent imprisoning people who are no risk to the communities.
Ofer said that the new policy will harm communities and set minorities "on a vicious cycle of incarceration".
"I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious offense".
Former U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey, who was the top federal prosecutor for the eastern half of Kentucky, said he was concerned that a multifaceted approach emphasizing prevention and treatment was being abandoned by the Trump administration. It's always been expected from the former prosecutor who has made fighting violent crime the Justice Department's priority.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, busy as he is with baldly involving himself in an investigation he is supposed to be recused from, has managed to find time to shove a largely unwilling country back into the catastrophically racist war on drugs of the '80s and '90s.
But Sessions said the opioid scourge shows the need to return to tougher tactics.