Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) sharply criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday for rolling back drug sentencing reforms, arguing that doing so “threatens our system of justice.”
Sessions instructed federal prosecutors last week to take the most aggressive approach possible against federal criminal defendants, including low-level drug offenders. The memo, a sharp reversal from policies implemented under former President Barack Obama, is likely to result in more jail time for drug offenders and an increase in the federal prison population.
Sessions’ memo had effectively “declare[d] the reviving of the war on drugs,” Harris said at the Center for American Progress’ Ideas Conference in Washington, D.C.
“Instead of going after drug cartels and violent crime and major drug traffickers, he is calling for a renewed focus on what is essentially the neighborhood street-level dealer,” she said. “Instead of addressing the core issues of addiction and getting folks into treatment, we’re going to overcrowd and build new prisons. That is not justice. That is not smart on crime. And I believe we have to stop this.”
“Instead of addressing the core issues of addiction and getting folks into treatment, we’re going to overcrowd and build new prisons.”
Harris, who last week called for Sessions’ resignation over his role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey, accused the attorney general of holding “outdated and out-of-touch views” that will “take us back to the dark ages.” She argued that instead of pursuing harsh sentencing policies that will disproportionately hurt communities of color, the administration should put its resources toward addressing addiction and combatting the opioid crisis.
“We need a national drug policy that finally treats substance abuse not as a crime to be punished but as a disease to be treated,” she said. “We need to build on reforms instead of reviving mandatory minimums or boosting bottom lines for public prisons. And we need to fund, not defund, the Office of National Drug Control Policy. And we need this administration to understand that if they care about the opioid crisis in rural America as they say they do, they also have to care about the drug-addicted man in Chicago or East L.A.”
Harris was California’s attorney general prior to serving as a U.S. senator. During her tenure, she advocated for keeping low-level offenders out of jail and frequently pointed out how the war on drugs had failed. She also spearheaded the creation of an online database cataloging statistics on arrests, police killings and in-custody deaths, and expressed support for a bipartisan effort to reform the criminal justice system.
However, Harris drew some criticism during her tenure for not taking a bold enough stance on some drug policy reform issues. Sentencing reform advocates in the state noticed Harris’ relative silence on Proposition 47, a 2014 ballot initiative to reduce most nonviolent crimes to misdemeanors and to help reduce the state’s prison population.
And during her 2014 campaign for re-election as attorney general, she declined to take a position on marijuana legalization, even as her Republican opponent spoke out in favor of it. She also didn’t speak out on the successful 2016 ballot measure in California to legalize recreational marijuana, due to her office’s role in analyzing ballot initiatives, but described legal weed as “inevitable.”
She now favors decriminalizing the drug, but has not co-sponsored recently introduced legislation to regulate the substance like alcohol.