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Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett was one of three Colorado district attorneys to sign a letter expressing concern over U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' call for maximum sentences on low-level offenders.The policy memo released earlier this month...

Boulder DA signs letter over Jeff Sessions wanting max sentences for low-level offenses

Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett was one of three Colorado district attorneys to sign a letter expressing concern over U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' call for maximum sentences on low-level offenders.The policy memo released earlier this month...

Boulder DA signs letter over Jeff Sessions wanting max sentences for low-level offenses

Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett was one of three Colorado district attorneys to sign a letter expressing concern over U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' call for maximum sentences on low-level offenders.

The policy memo released earlier this month by Sessions says prosecutors should "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense" — something more likely to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

"This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency," Sessions wrote in a memo.

But 31 U.S. prosecutors signed an open letter to Sessions criticizing the reversal of President Barack Obama-era policies and saying the move would be a step back in the effort to curb drug crimes.

"The Attorney General's directive marks an unnecessary and unfortunate return to past 'tough on crime' practices that we now know simply don't enhance or promote the safety of our communities," the letter read. "There is no empirical evidence to suggest that increases in sentences, particularly for low-level offenses, decrease the crime rate. Instead, we know that in many instances contact with the justice system exacerbates the likelihood of future criminal conduct and that the deterrent effect of long-term prison sentences is questionable at best."

Three Colorado prosecutors — Garnett, Breckenridge District Attorney Bruce Brown and Denver District Attorney Beth McCann — signed the letter.

"I was concerned, as a number of progressive prosecutors are, that the policy stated in Jeff Sessions' memo was really a step backward in the area of drug enforcement," Garnett said. "It reflects a false premise that a longer prison sentence enhances the public's safety."

Garnett said prison sentences are more appropriate for serious, violent crimes, not lower-level, drug-related crimes.

"When you are dealing with violent crimes, sometimes people need to be warehoused where they can't commit any more offenses," he said. "It's more complex with drug cases. Usually it's tied up with addition or substance abuse issues."

Garnett said the goal with non-violent drug offenders should be to rehabilitate them rather than simply sending them into the crowded prison system.

"Prison sentences can often make the psychological issue that's leading to the addiction worse," he said. "It's incredibly disruptive to the real goal, which is getting them employed and living a productive life. A two- or three-year sentence can really derail that, and we should not be imposing that on people who are not an immediate danger to the community."

Garnett said he thinks prosecutors from states where marijuana has been legalized have some insight into handling drug cases.

"The more we've dealt with the legalization and regulation of marijuana, we're seeing that the criminalization of drug possession and use pretty much doesn't work if they goal is to manage drugs in our society," he said. "So as we continue to learn these lessons, we should look at decriminalization of other substances. I think that's more effective than over-prosecution."

Garnett added that in most cases, he believes judges should have more leeway in sentencing, since they are the ones who know the facts of individual cases and the defendants.

"I'm not a fan of mandatory sentencing in any cases except for a few," he said. "Generally, sentencing should be left to the court after a full hearing with input from both sides in the case."

Mitchell Byars: 303-473-1329, byarsm@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/mitchellbyars

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