MIDWEST CITY, Okla. (AP) — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told dozens of Oklahoma sheriffs on Tuesday that policymakers should exercise caution when considering easing tough sentencing laws, a hot political topic in a state with one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

"The truth is that the problem we face today is not a sentencing problem, it's a crime problem," Sessions said during a meeting of the Oklahoma Sheriff's Association in Midwest City. "If we want to bring down our prison population, we need to bring down crime."

Sessions also defended his agency's civil asset forfeiture program and decried the rising number of homicides and opioid deaths nationwide.

Sessions said Oklahoma's murder rate jumped 40 percent from 2014 to 2016, while the number of overdose deaths in Oklahoma spiked by nearly 70 percent over the last decade.

With the nation's second highest overall incarceration, and the highest for women, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, overhauling Oklahoma's criminal sentencing guidelines has been a priority for many state legislators as they look to ease the state's overcrowded prisons. But Ray McNair, the head of the Oklahoma Sheriff's Association, and some Republican lawmakers who spoke at Thursday's event vowed to oppose many of those efforts next year.

State Reps. Scott Biggs and Tim Downing, both former prosecutors, also criticized initiatives approved by voters in November to reduce criminal penalties for drug possession and certain property crimes.

Biggs, a Chickasha Republican and chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, fought efforts earlier this year to reduce the number of violent crimes in state statute and other attempts to impose criminal justice reforms.

Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports efforts to reduce Oklahoma's incarceration rate, criticized Sessions and some members of law enforcement for opposing such efforts.

"As reformers from diverse political backgrounds and interests continue to push for desperately needed reform, it's alarming to see law enforcement embrace polices that run contrary to the will, the well-being, the dignity, and the lives of the people they are duty bound to serve," Kiesel said in a statement.

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