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Ashcroft Orders Tougher Federal Charges for Suspects

Attorney General John Ashcroft has ordered all U.S. attorneys' offices to charge defendants with the maximum crimes and penalties allowed in each case, Fox News has learned.

Over the past decade, federal prosecutors had leeway over which charges to pursue, even against the violent criminals. But in a memo sent Monday, Ashcroft changes that policy and directs federal prosecutors to "pursue the most serious, readily provable offense or offenses that are supported by the facts of the case."

The memo obtained by Fox News is strongly worded and reflects a trend in Washington to ensure that accused suspects and convicted criminals are treated similarly in each federal district.

"It's important that when the law is broken in Milwaukee, it's attended by the same consequences as when it's broken in Denver," Ashcroft said to reporters Monday following a speech in Milwaukee.

Congress recently passed legislation limiting the ability of federal judges to issue lenient sentences. In July, Ashcroft told prosecutors to pursue maximum punishments and report on sentences that were dramatically less than what guidelines recommend.

"Just as the sentence a defendant receives should not depend upon which particular judge presides over the case," Ashcroft writes in his memo, "so too the charges a defendant faces should not depend upon the particular prosecutor handling the case."

"As the sole federal prosecuting entity, the Department of Justice (search) has a unique obligation to ensure that all federal criminal cases are prosecuted according to the same standards," the memo continues. "Fundamental fairness requires that all defendants prosecuted in the federal criminal justice system be subject to the same standards and treated in a consistent manner."

The letter reflects Ashcroft's tough stance on crime, despite of criticism by civil-liberties groups and some Democrats in Congress.

The attorney general last week announced that the national crime rate had hit a 30-year low, and in a speech said the government must continue to be tougher on criminals.

"The lawless. The predatory. The habitual repeat offenders. These are the real sources of crime," Ashcroft said. "And we must target and remove the source of violence, intimidation and criminal behavior."

The memo reverses the Clinton administration's policy on prosecutorial discretion, which itself reversed the first Bush administration's guidelines.

In 1989, then-Attorney General Dick Thornburgh (search) issued a directive ordering prosecutorial consistency. Several years later, then-Attorney General Janet Reno (search) granted prosecutors more flexibility in charging defendants.

In Monday's memo, Ashcroft also makes clear that federal prosecutors must not file unsupportable charges simply to exert leverage over defendants, and that once charges have been filed, they should generally not be dismissed.

The attorney general's memo also:

— Urges prosecutors to pursue increased penalties, or "statutory enhancements," for eligible defendants, such as repeat offenders.

— Dictates plea-bargaining guidelines, disadvising lenient sentences unless defendants agree to fully cooperate with further investigations.

Gerald Lefcourt, past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (search), said the plea-bargaining directive would make the federal criminal system "inflexible and problematic" because fewer defendants would plead guilty to harsher offenses.

Lefcourt also predicted it would further burden a straining corrections system.

"If all you want is to have everyone who is ever charged with something warehoused, this is a good thing," Lefcourt said. "It's not just about warehousing people. It's about a fair and sure system."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.