Before that, prosecutors were operating under a couple of memos issued by Holder under the Obama administration.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: During the campaign, Donald Trump raised the alarm over rising crime, especially murder, which has spiked in some cities. Sessions quickly reversed that directive upon taking office.
"If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way", Sessions said Friday at the Justice Department.
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.
The new guidance from Attorney General Sessions would rescind the Holder-era "Smart on Crime" that prioritized harshly prosecuting violent crime over non-violent drug offenses.
But Holder said Friday that since he gave prosecutors more discretion four years ago, the number of cases carrying mandatory minimum sentences have dropped and the prosecution of high-level drug offenders had increased ─ without impacting the rates at which people cooperated with authorities or pleaded guilty. Will this policy end up increasing America's prison population, which is already the biggest in the world? "Contradicting commonsense, conscience, and experience of red and blue state governors, this new policy takes us quickly backward", said NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks. Defendants who met a set of criteria such as not belonging to a large-scale drug trafficking organization, gang or cartel, qualified for lesser charges - and in turn less prison time - under Holder's policy. And the American Civil Liberties Union said Sessions is " pushing federal prosecutors to reverse progress and repeat a failed experiment-the War on Drugs".
Here is the text of 18 U.S. Code § 3553.
He says the policy is simply an application of sentencing laws approved by Congress. We need to say, as Nancy Reagan said, 'Just say no.' There's no excuse for this, it's not recreational.
"The murder rate has surged 10 percent nationwide".
"Long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation", Holder wrote in his 2013 memo, noting thatthey exacerbate an expensive, overburdened prison system.
Strict sentencing, especially for low-level drug offenses, was seen as a regressive and overly harsh tactic that filled up federal prisons with disproportionately large numbers of black and Hispanic offenders.
KASTE: Ultimately this is about sending a message.
To some degree, this is hardly surprising; Trump and Sessions have long spoken about how they are "tough on crime" and, therefore, support stringent prison sentences for criminals. "Lives are at stake, and we're not going to worry about being fashionable".
In speeches across the country, including his first major address as attorney general, Sessions has talked of his belief that recent increases in serious crime might indicate that the United States stands at the beginning of a violent new period.
That being an era of accountability, where enforcing the law takes precedent over political objectives.