Senator Kamala Harris: Jeff Sessions’ Policies Return Us To ‘The Dark Ages’

By Kelly Burch 05/22/17

Senator Harris spoke out against Sessions' push for harsher sentencing at a recent conference in the nation's capital. 

California Senator Kamala Harris
California Senator Kamala Harris

California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris took a strong stance against the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ push for tougher sentencing across the nation, saying that Sessions’ policies would take the country “back to the dark ages.”

"I saw the War on Drugs up close, and, let me tell you, [it] was an abject failure," Harris told the audience at the Center for American Progress' Ideas Conference in Washington, D.C., according to Rolling Stone. "It offered taxpayers a bad return on investment. It was bad for public safety. It was bad for budgets and our economy. And it was bad for people of color and those struggling to make ends meet.”

The conference, held last week, is a showcase of the Democratic party’s stances and candidates for 2020. Harris’s no-holds-barred attack on Sessions’ push for harsher sentencing is reflective of the Democratic party's resistance to the Trump administration’s approach to incarceration—particularly for non-violent drug offenders. 

Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo to federal prosecutors that effectively reinstated the use of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses. This was a break from Obama-era policies which tended toward a more lenient approach to non-violent drug offenders. 

Harris is familiar with the impact of mandatory sentencing, having worked as a prosecutor, district attorney and state attorney general before being elected to the Senate last November. During her speech, she shared her experience working as a prosecutor during the crack cocaine epidemic. 

“These young baby prosecutors would be handed a file of a possession case, simple possession, and we'd have about five minutes to review it before we went to court. And then we would go in and argue for some sentence [for which] this person would be jailed.”

She says that Sessions’ approach to sentencing for drug offenders reinforces the stigma of addiction. 

"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. We need to build on reforms, instead of reviving mandatory minimums or boosting bottom lines for private prisons, and we need to fund—not defund—the office of National Drug Control Policy," she said. "And we need this administration to understand that if they care about the opioid crisis in rural America as they say they do, they have also got to care about the drug-addicted young man in Chicago or East LA."  

Harris also attacked the Department of Justice's decision to continue housing federal inmates in private for-profit prisons, something that was slated to be phased out under the Obama administration. 

"Let's be clear about private prisons: The business model is that you reap profit from incarcerating people," said Harris. "We should not be creating incentives to house people in prison, we should be creating incentives instead to shut the revolving door into prison."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.