Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Ashcroft issues get-tough policy

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft spoke Monday in Cincinnati about a reduction in crime and a lack of major terrorist incidents since Sept. 11, 2001, he was making larger news on the national stage with his promise that federal prosecutors will be tougher and more consistent with terrorists and other criminals.

As he spoke in Cincinnati, it was revealed that Ashcroft ordered federal prosecutors to pursue maximum criminal charges and sentences whenever possible and to seek lesser penalties through plea bargains only in limited circumstances.

An Ashcroft memo sent to all 94 U.S. attorneys' offices Monday supersedes policy during former Attorney General Janet Reno's tenure that allowed prosecutors greater individual discretion to determine if the charges and potential punishment fit the crime.

At his Cincinnati speech, Ashcroft addressed Greater Cincinnati law-enforcement officials invited to the speech at the Aronoff Center for the Arts downtown. Thirty of them sat behind Ashcroft as he thanked them for fighting violent crime and helping in the war on terror.

As a half-dozen protesters walked outside holding signs that criticized the Patriot Act as a way to violate citizens' rights, Ashcroft called it crucial to breaking down barriers and improving communication among federal agencies fighting terrorists.

"We didn't seek this struggle,'' Ashcroft said. "But we embrace this cause.''

The 2001 Patriot Act significantly increased the surveillance and investigative powers of law enforcement agencies, tightened control over immigrants and expanded government access to business and other records that could be linked to terrorism. Critics say it did not provide a system of checks and balances to safeguard civil liberties.

Ashcroft explained that his new "direct and emphatic" policy requires federal prosecutors to file the most serious charges that are "readily provable'' in a particular case. It's a move, he said, that will standardize the way cases are handled across the country and encourage people to take plea deals in exchange for cooperating significantly with authorities.

"We're a country that believes in equal justice," Ashcroft said. "Should we have one set of consequences in one part of the country and another set of consequences in other parts of the country?"

The policy change is the latest example of Ashcroft's attempts to bring greater symmetry - critics say inflexibility - to the federal justice system. During the summer, Ashcroft instructed U.S. attorneys to seek the death penalty whenever applicable, overruling some who would not, and to vigorously oppose sentences imposed by judges that are lighter than recommended by federal guidelines.

Critics predicted the new plea-bargain policy will severely limit prosecutors' options - forcing more defendants to face costly, time-consuming trials instead of pleading guilty - and add to prison overcrowding problems

"No two crimes, and no two defendants, are exactly alike," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a research group that advocates alternatives to prison.

Gerald Lefcourt, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the change "creates a system that is not only inflexible and problematic, but becomes a sort of immovable object. You're adding more unfairness to the system."

In an interview after the 25-minute speech, the attorney general said he still gets occasional updates on Cincinnati's 2002 settlement with the Justice Department over racial profiling allegations. The agreement outlined changes in police training, use of force and reporting..

"I recommend to people that the idea expressed in Cincinnati is that the important thing is to fix the problem,'' Ashcroft said. But he compared it with marriage and said any agreement isn't always perfect.

"I'm very grateful,'' Ashcroft said, "for the progress that's been made.''


The Associated Press contributed to this report. Email jprendergast@enquirer.com

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