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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration called for tougher charges and longer prison time for criminals in a move to return to strict enforcement of federal sentencing rules, according to a memo the U.S. Department of Justice released on Friday.
In a two-page note to federal prosecutors, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed course from the previous Obama administration and told the nation's 94 U.S. attorneys to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offence."
The move is in line with tough campaign rhetoric against criminals by U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican who had also pledged to support police and law enforcement.
"This is a key part of President Trump’s promise to keep America safe," Sessions said in remarks at the Justice Department.
Under former president Barack Obama, a Democrat, the Justice Department had sought to reduce mandatory-minimum sentences to reduce jail time for low-level drug crimes and ease overcrowding at federal U.S. prisons.
Obama's then-attorney general Eric Holder advised prosecutors to avoid pursuing the toughest charges in certain cases, such as more minor drug offences, that would have triggered mandatory sentencing under laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s.
In recent years, there has been growing bipartisan interest among some in Congress, U.S. states and the courts to reevaluate lengthy prison terms and instead focus on alternatives to reducing criminal behaviour.
Sessions' memo, dated on Wednesday, rescinds the Obama-era policy, saying federal prosecutors must now get approval from a supervisor if they want to bring charges or seek sentences that are milder than the strictest options available in a case.
"These reversals will be both substantively and financially ruinous, setting the Department back on a track to again spending one third of its budget on incarcerating people, rather than preventing, detecting, or investigating crime" Holder said of Sessions' decision in a statement on Friday.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a longtime opponent of bipartisan sentencing reform efforts in Congress, called it a "common sense" way to reduce drugs and crime.
But other Republicans rejected that claim, saying drug use should be treated medically and that the department's policy shift would only deepen the nation's racial divide.
"Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long," Senator Rand Paul said.
Holly Harris, head of the bipartisan sentencing reform organisation U.S. Justice Action Network, said reform efforts have taken hold even in deep-red conservative states where Republicans dominate.
"It's frustrating that Washington is not looking to the states as the laboratories of democracy," she said.
Twenty-three U.S. states since 2007 have changed their sentencing laws to reserve prison space for the most serious or repeat offenders, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
The federal change is also likely to increase the number of people in the United States who are sentenced to U.S. prison.
"Reversing (Holder's) directive will exacerbate prison overcrowding, increase spending and jeopardise the safety of staff and prisoners," said Marc Mauer, who leads The Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice research and advocacy group.
The number of sentenced prisoners in federal custody fell slightly during Obama's time in office, reversing a decades-old trend of growth.
Federal inmates represent a sliver of the overall U.S. prison population of more than 1.5 million, according to Justice Department statistics.
On Friday, Sessions said the change was necessary to combat rising drug use and crime, particularly in cities.
Several law enforcement leaders said the new policy would not mitigate the nation's growing opioid epidemic, which Trump has pledged to make a top priority.
"Decades of experience shows we cannot arrest and incarcerate our way out of America’s drug problem. Instead, we must direct resources to treatment and to specifically combating violent crime," said Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney in Utah.
Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Andrew Hay