Federal Prosecutor: 'Drug Trafficking Is Inherently Violent’

By Penny Starr | July 21, 2015 | 8:03am EDT
Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on July 17, 2015. (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

(CNSNews.com) - Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys (NAAUSA), said his organization opposes President Barack Obama's decision to commute the sentences of 46 convicted felons and his push for more lenient sentences for "low-level," "non-violent" drug traffickers.

“Drug trafficking is inherently violent. You keep hearing the phrase ‘non-violent drug offenders' -- it’s a misnomer,” Cook said at a news conference on Friday. "Drug trafficking is inherently violent and the penalties are necessary.”

Cook, who works as an assistant U.S. attorney in Chattanooga, Tenn., defended minimum, mandatory sentences for drug traffickers as an important tool to dismantle drug trafficking organizations.

In announcing the commutations last week, President Obama described the 46 felons as people “engaged in non-violent drug offenses” who deserve a second chance. Many of the 46 were crack or cocaine dealers.

Cook said people who don’t understand the violence involved in drug trafficking have not been on the front lines of the battle:

“They haven’t stood next to the casket of an 18-year-old and listened to the mother cry about having lost her only child to pills that were peddled on the street for profit,” Cook said. “They haven’t been in the front seat of a car and extracted the parents while their 7- and 8-year-old daughters lay in the back seat dead because they were hit head-on by someone drugged up on illegal and controlled substances that they had obtained unlawfully.

“They probably haven’t visited neonatal wards and watched as babies go through withdrawals because they’re mother was addicted – in my district often times – methamphetamine -– it’s horrible and tragic consequences that we see,” Cook said.

NAAUSA has written a letter to Senate and House leaders, opposing the creation and passage of legislation to reduce minimum mandatory sentences for drug trafficking. The letter is signed by 29 federal law enforcement officials and prosecutors, including former U.S. Attorney Generals William Barr and Michael Mukasey and former Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy William Bennett.

“We believe the American people will be ill-served by the significant reduction of sentences for federal drug trafficking crimes that involve the sale and distribution of dangerous drugs like heroin, methamphetamines and PCP,” the letter states.

Cook said that NAAUSA members are not politicians or lobbyists, and this is the first time since the association was formed in the 1990s that the organization has spoken out publically on an issue.

“We at the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys think that this is one of the most important issues of our time,” Cook said. “In our view, it’s a serious public safety issue. Our view is, simply, the federal justice system is not broken, and Congress should not soften the penalties for drug trafficking.”

Cook noted that many of the convicted criminals are repeat offenders who have committed significant offenses. “Our prosecutorial efforts are focused on the worst of the worst,” he said.

When asked by CNSNews.com about President Barack Obama’s 46 grants of clemency, Cook cited Robert Joe Young of Alabama as an example of a violent drug trafficker.

According to the Justice Department, Young was convicted of conspiracy to possess and intent to distribute both methamphetamine and cocaine, as well as use of a firearm and carrying a firearm while drug trafficking; and obstruction of justice. He received a 20-year prison sentence in 2002, as well as five years' supervised release.

The commutation of his sentence means he will leave prison this November.

Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry, head of the Alabama law enforcement team that arrested Young, told the local ABC affiliate that it was the second time Young, 52, had been arrested for methamphetamine dealing and that his sentence reduction sends the wrong message.

"As a society, we should not send a message to the communities that drug dealers are not violent criminals, because they are," Gentry told WTVM.com "They kill our society with their drugs."

Gentry also noted that Young pleaded guilty to the charges against him.

"It appears, from Mr. Young's paperwork, he pleaded guilty to 20 years,” Gentry said. “He must have thought it was a fair sentence.”

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