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Federal Drug Prosecutions at a Historic Low Despite Jeff Sessions' Crackdown Threats

The Trump administration has hampered Sessions' ability to follow through on his threats.

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Despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions' repeated threats to ramp up the war on drugs and crack down on drug offenders, federal drug prosecutions for the first half of 2017 have remained at a historic low.

Federal drug prosecutions declined substantially under the previous administration, following a memo from President Obama directing the Justice Department to focus on drug kingpins rather than low-level offenders. This May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a memo to U.S. Attorneys that effectively reversed this decision by asking prosecutors to seek the maximum possible sentence for any drug offense.

However, federal law enforcement actually prosecuted nine percent fewer drug crimes from February to June of this year than they did during that same time period last year. The number of drug prosecutions this year was over 20 percent lower than the number of prosecutions in the first half of 2012, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Legal experts believe that President Trump and his administration may be partially responsible for preventing Sessions from following through on his threats. In March, Trump forced 90 out of the 93 active U.S. Attorneys to resign, and to date none of his nominations to replace them have been approved by the Senate. Sessions promised that he would hire 300 additional assistant U.S. attorneys to help kick-start his war on drugs, but Trump's federal hiring freeze has prevented him from doing so.

Without having his own team in place, Sessions has been unable to roll back the Obama-era Justice Department reforms. “For four years people got used to doing things a different way,” said Mark Osler, former Detroit assistant U.S. attorney. “Sessions doesn’t have the people on the ground to do the shoving.”

“The fiefdoms of U.S. attorneys are really important. Who’s in charge locally matters a lot,” Osler explained. “What cases they take, the interactions they have with local law enforcement is really going to depend on them having someone in there committed to the Sessions policy. Them not having their U.S. Attorneys in place yet really matters. That’s where the change is going to come from.”