Is the threat of major prison time needed to get defendants to rat out high-level drug dealers?

The Justice Department official managing a major strategic change in drug prosecutions doesn’t think so.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said the rate of guilty pleas prosecutors have secured stayed the same even after the Justice Department told them to rethink how lengthy sentences are used as leverage to get cooperation.

Yates told BuzzFeed:

“[O]ur sole responsibility is to seek justice. And sometimes that means a very lengthy sentence, for people who are dangerous and from which society must be protected. But it always means seeking a proportional sentence. And that’s what this sentencing reform is really about.”

So in other words, sometimes sentences should be strict, but prosecutors shouldn’t immediately threaten lengthy prison terms.

In August 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Smart on Crime Initiative, intended to ease prison overcrowding and push back on the “tough on crime” approach championed by prosecutors and politicians in the decades-long war on drugs.

Many prosecutors cried foul, saying that high-level drug prosecutions depend on the threat of lengthy sentences to secure cooperation from low-level offenders. While those offenders may not be the main target of an investigation, they’re often the ones that police can arrest.

Just this month, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys released a paper warning that Congressional sentencing reform could undermine their work if mandatory minimum sentences disappear.

Here’s a telling excerpt (which follows many similar statements on the issue):

“Slashing minimum mandatory penalties will threaten the prosecution of many of the most dangerous and high level criminals involved in drug trafficking by undermining the cooperation incentive that the current sentencing structure creates.”

Yates, who is herself a career federal prosecutor, said she understands why prosecutors worry they are losing an important tool. But she doesn’t think reform hurts enforcement.

She told BuzzFeed:

“There were some out there who were saying, and I understand this, ‘We’ll never get another defendant to cooperate with us, they’re not going to plead guilty, they’re not going to cooperate with us. We’ve lost our leverage, we won’t be able to work our way up the ladder’…But that’s turned out just not to be true.”

While the push toward reform started some time ago, it’s only been recently that some of the efforts have led to concrete changes (like the commutation of 46 sentences by Obama in July).

Just what sentencing reform actually looks like is an open question, but the issue has major supporters among conservatives and progressives.

Recently, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has opposed changing mandatory minimums, said that he knows sentencing reform is necessary.  The issue will be how legislation balances sweeping reforms with the still lingering tough-on-crime approach.

That might not be easy.

“You ask folks to do something differently, there’s naturally some discomfort with that among certain prosecutors,” Yates told BuzzFeed.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at Follow him on Twitter @jabenzing.

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Jeff has been serving as assistant editor for PublicSource since October 2018, helping to guide coverage across the newsroom and overseeing economic development coverage for Develop PGH. Jeff previously...