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In Texas speech, AG Sessions blames Obama-era policies for drug epidemic

By Nicole Cobler
The Dallas Morning News

July 11. 2017 11:43PM
Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill last month. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS/File)

DALLAS — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the nation’s drug epidemic “unprecedented” in a speech Tuesday in Grapevine, Texas.

“Drugs on the street are more powerful, more addicting and more dangerous than ever,” he said.

In a speech at the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, training conference, the attorney general blamed the country’s drug crisis on bipartisan, Obama-era sentencing reform policies that he said directed prosecutors “not to charge the most serious offenses.”

“Prosecutors were required to leave out true facts in order to achieve sentences lighter than those sentences required by law,” said Sessions, who was warmly received by law enforcement officers, students and their families at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center. “This was billed as an effort to curb mass incarceration.

“What was the result? Well, it’s not going well, in my opinion.”

Violent crime in the U.S. has fallen sharply over the past quarter century, according to a 2017 report by Pew Research Center. However, the FBI reported a 10.8 percent spike in the country’s murder rate in 2015, part of a nearly 4 percent increase in violent crime.

In May, Sessions issued a two-page memorandum, directing his federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe penalties possible, rolling back a policy under the previous administration that eased sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses.

“We are going to trust our prosecutors again,” Sessions said Tuesday. “This policy empowers trust in professionals to apply the law fairly and exercise discretion when appropriate.”

After Sessions unveiled the new guidance, The Washington Post reported that U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said mandatory minimum sentences would “accentuate” existing problems in the criminal justice system.

Sessions praised President Donald Trump’s vision to increase border security and keep undocumented immigrants out of the country, adding that most drugs come into the U.S. through the southern border.

“It’s why I’ve urged cities and other jurisdictions to cooperate with federal authorities and turn over criminal aliens for deportation, which is what 80 percent of American people want us to do,” he said.

Sessions was referring to a poll that Trump has cited while addressing wide support to ban so-called sanctuary cities. According to PolitiFact, the Harvard-Harris poll did not actually use the term “sanctuary cities,” but instead asked “Should cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes be required to turn them over to immigration authorities?” Eighty percent of respondents answered yes.

Sessions, who was a fierce anti-immigration voice in the senate, has also applauded Texas’ so-called sanctuary cities law. The law, signed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in May, allows police to question anyone they detain about their immigration status.

Senate Bill 4 also punishes cities, counties and universities that prohibit local law enforcement officers from asking about a person’s immigration status or enforcing immigration law. It created criminal charges for police chiefs, county sheriffs and constables who violate the ban and would fine local jurisdictions up to $25,000 a day for each violation.

Sessions advocated Tuesday for “prevention through education” to end the opioid epidemic, adding that programs like DARE keep students away from drugs.

“We need your strong leadership to deny the drug dealers new customers,” Sessions told DARE officers in the crowd. “We need to create a culture and a climate that is hostile to drug use.”

A majority of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. involve an opioid, and 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fighting abuse of prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone has become a major challenge for law enforcement.

In May, the state’s Health and Human Services Commission announced Texas would receive $27.4 million to combat opioid use disorders. In 2015, Texas made up 1,100 of the more than 33,000 opioid-related deaths in the country.

Representatives from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office were also in attendance, DARE President and CEO Francisco “Frank” Pegueros said. In June, Paxton announced that his office would join a group of state attorneys general to investigate the sale of prescription pain medications.

Sessions announced Tuesday that his department reached a $35 million settlement with Mallinckrodt pharmaceutical company for failing to notify the Drug Enforcement Administration of suspicious drug orders.

“These failures resulted in millions of OxyContin pills being sold on our street,” Sessions said. “This department of justice will hold you accountable for such illegal activities.”

Ron Lanigan, an officer with the Comal County Sheriff’s Office, teaches the DARE program in the county’s school district. He became a DARE officer eight years ago, partly because he hoped to change students’ lives after losing his own sister to a drug overdose.

Lanigan said he knows that the DARE program isn’t the cure-all for the country’s drug problem, but thinks the program helps bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community.

“It’s a cool feeling because I was more than just an officer or a cop — I was Officer Ron, and I was their officer,” Lanigan said, adding that now students invite him to their graduations or wave in the halls.

Lanigan said he hoped the attorney general could increase DARE funds so that departments with struggling programs could bring DARE to more kids.

“Hopefully having someone like Jeff Sessions here, he’s going to be the type to take the message back to people and say ’Hey we really need to think about funding DARE,’” Lanigan said after Tuesday’s speech.


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