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WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft on Monday ordered federal
prosecutors to come down harder on criminal defendants, instructing them to
seek maximum penalties and to limit the use of plea bargains.

The tough new stance, outlined in a memo distributed to all 93 U.S.
attorneys, dramatically reduces prosecutors' discretion in federal criminal
cases ranging from drug trafficking to money laundering to terrorism. Under
former Attorney General Janet Reno, prosecutors were given greater leeway in
determining whether the potential charge fit the crime.

Ashcroft said the shift was designed to create consistency in the nation's
criminal justice system.

"Like federal judges, federal prosecutors nationwide have an obligation to
be fair, uniform and tough," the attorney general said in a speech Monday in

Critics accused Ashcroft of adopting an unwieldy one-size-fits-all approach
and taking yet another step to consolidate power at the Justice Department
headquarters in Washington.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that Ashcroft was intervening in the
death penalty decisions of federal prosecutors, ordering them to seek
executions in cases where they had decided not to. The Justice Department
also has told prosecutors to report on so-called downward departures, in
which judges hand down lighter sentences than the rigid federal sentencing
guidelines require.

Mary Price, general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice
reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, called Ashcroft's latest
memo "very disturbing."

"Those people on the ground with a flesh-and-blood defendant in front of
them are in the best position to know what ought to be done," Price said.
"This almost removes human beings from the equation altogether.

Gerald Lefcourt, former president of the National Association of Criminal
Defense Lawyers, said the move almost certainly would result in more costly
trials and more prisoners in a system that is already overburdened.

"What they are doing is creating an inflexible, unjust system that
eliminates all possibility of compassion," Lefcourt said.

Bill Mercer, the U.S. attorney in Montana who sat on the15-member Attorney
General's Advisory Committee, which drew up the changes, said they had the
support of federal prosecutors.

"You want uniformity," Mercer said. "You don't want someone's viewpoint or
philosophy determining the outcome. What we are after is eliminating
disparity from place to place and defendant to defendant when the crime is
the same."

The new guidelines contain enough flexibility for unique cases, he said.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 created uniform sentences in which federal
judges must take into account the crime and mitigating circumstances in an
almost mathematical formula that determines a criminal's prison sentence. A
1989 memo by then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, who served under
President Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, outlined guidelines
that sought similar consistency from prosecutors. Reno reworked those
guidelines during her tenure to give local prosecutors more discretion.

Mercer said the Ashcroft memo returned to the "spirit of the Thornburgh

The Ashcroft memo states that "federal prosecutors must charge and pursue
the most serious, readily provable offenses that are supported by the

"Charges should not be filed simply to exert leverage to get a plea," the
memo said.

Plea bargains may be used only in rare circumstances, such as when a
defendant agrees to provide "substantial assistance" to law enforcement

While Ashcroft in his memo invoked the Sentencing Reform Act as a "watershed
event in the pursuit if fairness and consistency in the federal criminal
justice system" others have been less complimentary.

Supreme Court justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer have criticized
the rigid sentencing guidelines. Breyer was a member of the U.S. Sentencing
Commission that helped write them.

Pubdate: Mon, 22 Sep 2003
Source: Sun News (Myrtle Beach, SC)
Copyright: 2003 Sun Publishing Co.
Contact: opinions@thesunnews.com
Website: Myrtle Beach SC Breaking News, Sports & Crime | Myrtle Beach Sun News
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