Backward-thinking Oklahoma sheriffs, prosecutors and legislators are bringing in outside help in their bid to undermine criminal justice reform overwhelmingly supported by Oklahoma voters and a large, diverse, nonpartisan coalition of Oklahomans that continues to grow.
Their ally in this fight against Oklahomans is none other than U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is scheduled to speak at an Oklahoma Sheriffs Association meeting Oct. 19 at Rose State College in Midwest City.
To understand all that is wrong with criminal justice in America, look no further than Sessions. Few people present a better contrast of what works and what doesn’t in criminal justice.
As a controversial U.S. senator and now as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Sessions has doubled down on wrongheaded approaches to crime that caused America’s failed War on Drugs and made us the world’s most incarcerated nation.
The damage done to Oklahoma by these policies has been prolific: We hold the distinction of No. 1 in female incarceration and will be No. 1 in total incarceration next year unless corrective actions are taken. Sadly, Sessions and some Oklahoma law enforcement officials continue to view this distinction as a badge of honor in their twisted, lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key worldviews.
Make no mistake: Sessions’ record on criminal justice is abysmal, not aligned with Oklahoma voters, and in direct conflict with the needs of our state. The catastrophic problems Oklahoma is trying to fix in its prison system are direct results of the types of destructive, ineffective policies Sessions still pushes.
That said, having Sessions in Oklahoma should excite our state’s vast network of criminal justice reform supporters. His visit fully confirms Oklahoma is succeeding in ending the failed War on Drugs, helping our citizens overcome addiction and improving public safety. Sessions would not come here if he did not view Oklahoma’s progress as a threat to his hateful criminal justice agenda.
His visit is concerning, though, because it shows opponents of State Questions 780 and 781 and subsequent reform efforts are ramping up efforts to undo the work of Oklahoma voters and advocates. Ever since voters in November declared overly harsh punishment for nonviolent drug and property offenses to be a relic of the past, sheriffs, prosecutors and some legislators have sought to undermine that progress and return to the broken system of yesteryear.
Now they have Sessions as an ally – and they are already using his playbook.
When he launched efforts to block bipartisan legislation in Congress last year to reform federal sentencing guidelines, Sessions – then a U.S. senator – said: “I think we’ve gone far enough, and we’re moving too fast…the last thing we need to do is a major reduction in penalties.”
Flanked by out-of-touch law enforcement hardliners, Sessions pushed back against legislation that had achieved strong support from the left and the right, among conservatives and liberals alike. After an aggressive, months-long campaign of false fear-mongering by Sessions and his ilk, congressional leadership shelved the legislation after growing tired of fighting Sessions’ misinformation campaign.
On a state level, this type of outcome is precisely what opponents of reform want in Oklahoma. In fact, Oklahoma’s setback this past legislative session on a package of bills developed by Gov. Mary Fallin’s criminal justice task force played out like a microcosm of the congressional setback Sessions caused.
When state Rep. Scott Biggs blocked the governor’s task force bills in the Oklahoma Legislature this year, he repeated claims Sessions and his underlings often make about reform efforts going “too fast” while defending stiff penalties for nonviolent offenses. All session long, Biggs spread more outright lies than anything resembling the truth – another tactic often used by Sessions and anti-reformers. The facts, the data and the people are not on Sessions’ or Biggs’ side in this fight, so they must resort to fear-mongering and inaccuracies to achieve their goals.
This practice has continued after session ended, with some county sheriffs becoming increasingly vocal in opposition to SQs 780 and 781, which took effect July 1, and future reform efforts. Sheriffs in Oklahoma are also using the Sessions playbook, spreading misinformation and fear in attempt to get voters and reform supporters to look past the facts and data upon which smarter decisions are starting to be made.
When Jeff Sessions visits Oklahoma this week, Oklahomans should remember his policies are the problem, not the solution.