U.S. Jeff Sessions spoke to a receptive audience Thursday when he addressed members of the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association at Rose State College in Midwest City.
Sessions said law enforcement nationwide is dealing with an increase in the violent crime rate, gangs, the opioid epidemic and threats of terrorism. Sessions says these issues are combined with cultural changes that concern him.
“Family discipline seems to be eroding further and the kinds of values we were raised with are not often being transmitted today,” Sessions said.
Sessions shared preliminary data that shows about 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016. He said the country has never seen so many deaths from a drug epidemic.
“That’s more than the population of Midwest City dead in one year,” Sessions said. “For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the largest cause of death.”
Sessions said the federal prison population is down 14 percent, and the average federal sentence has been reduced by 19 percent.
“Despite the national surge in violent crime, and the record number of drug deaths over the last two years, there’s a move for even lighter sentences in federal court,” Sessions aid.
Last year, Oklahoma voters approved State Questions 780 and 781, which changed the classification of some nonviolent crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor in order to reduce the length of prison sentences and incarceration rate. Sessions did not specifically mention Oklahoma’s efforts to reduce prison sentences, but he did lauded a 1984 law that requires federal mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing guidelines.
“The truth is, the problem that we face today is not a sentencing problem, it’s a crime problem,” Sessions said.
Sessions told sheriffs that he is not backing down from using civil asset forfeiture. That’s the process under which law enforcement can seize property, such as large sums of money, from people suspected of illegal activities without filing charges. Seized money is often shared with law enforcement agencies.
Sessions said civil asset forfeiture weakens criminals and cartels.
“It takes the material support of the criminals and turns it into material support for law enforcement. In departments around the country, funds that were once used to take lives are now being used to save lives and protect lives,” Sessions said.
Sessions added that the public needs to be confident in the program in order for it to be effective.
“We need strong leadership to make sure that everyone knows we’re not abusing the programs,” Sessions said.
In a statement, ACLU of Oklahoma executive director Ryan Kiesel described the types of policies that Session promotes as “Jim Crow-esque” laws that have led to Oklahoma’s high rate of incarceration.
“These tired, tough on crime tactics do nothing to serve the interests of Oklahoma and have resulted in one of the biggest human rights crises of our time. Oklahoma already rejected the mindset Sessions tried to instill on us today when the people overwhelmingly adopted State Questions 780 and 781,” Kiesel wrote.
A group of about 40 protesters sang songs and held up signs across the street from where Sessions spoke. Cate Howell cited the state’s high incarceration rate for protesting Sessions’ appearance.
“We have huge a budget problem that is largely due to mass incarceration and over-sentencing schemes like mandatory minimums, “ Howell said.
As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.