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California Officials Criticize 'Stupid' Federal Drug Crackdown

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra termed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' blanket call for harsher penalties for criminals "crazy" and "stupid."
Image: US Attorney General Jeff Sessions in New York
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at the federal courthouse in Central Islip, New York on April 28.Peter Foley / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California's attorney general and state lawmakers again moved Monday in the opposite direction from the Trump administration, this time on penalties for criminals.

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra termed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' blanket call for harsher penalties for criminals "crazy" and "stupid," while state senators voted to roll back penalties for drug offenders.

Sessions said Friday that federal prosecutors should file the toughest charges possible against most crime suspects.

The California critics said that is a throwback to what they called a failed war on drugs. They argued that the policy unfairly targets minorities for incarceration.

Related: Attorney General Sessions Charts Course Back to Long Drug Sentences

The state Senate approved ending an added three-year prison sentence for repeat drug offenders, sending the bill to the Assembly.

The three-year enhancement is a relic of "archaic, racist laws," said Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, pointing out that it resulted in minorities being imprisoned for possession of even minimal quantities of illegal drugs.

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, who is black, said that when she envisions those caught up in the war on drugs, "I see struggling Californians, many of whom look like me."

Her SB180 would still allow offenders to serve the underlying prison or jail sentence. Supporters argued there is little evidence the enhancements deterred crime, and said violent offenders could still get longer sentences based on other factors.

"This bill seeks to treat career traffickers in the same exact way that an individual is treated for their first offense," countered Sen. Jeff Stone, a Temecula Republican.

The bill was approved on a 22-13 vote.

Senators also approved SB439, which could keep children 11 and younger out of juvenile courts. Counties could instead detain and treat the youngest juvenile offenders though their child services systems.

"Youth under 12 are inherently less culpable," argued Mitchell, who carried both bills with Lara. "They need our help, they need resources."

Related: Attorney General Sessions Orders Tougher Drug Crime Prosecutions

Stone argued that the measure gives children "a free pass until they reach a certain age to commit any crime that they wish."

That measure was sent to the Assembly on a 23-13 vote.

Becerra separately addressed Sessions' order to the nation's federal prosecutors while speaking at the Sacramento Press Club. Sessions was a federal prosecutor during the crack cocaine epidemic. He has promised to make fighting violence and drugs the U.S. Justice Department's top priority.

"It's like not learning from history," said Becerra, arguing that the policy will fill federal prisons and disproportionately target minorities.

"I think it's crazy. I don't understand it," Becerra said. "To the degree that we have anything to do with it we'll try to make sure California is insulated from that type of activity, but ... I can't stop them from being stupid."