Attorney General William Barr gave a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police conference in New Orleans today, during which he lambasted criminal justice reform efforts as “dangerous to public safety.” It’s worth a reminder that these reforms aren’t just a rebuke to Barr’s worldview, but his entire career as well.
At the conference, Barr singled out “progressive prosecutors,” such as Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, who are taking a decidedly less punitive approach to nonviolent crimes such as drug possession. To Barr—who recently announced that the DOJ is ready to get back in the murder business—letting people avoid jail for crimes that don’t actually hurt anyone just won’t do. From the Associated Press:
Barr took a hard swing at prosecutors who don’t embrace the same tough-on-crime stance. He said appointing such progressive district attorneys is “demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety” because they “spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.”
“So these cities are headed back to the days of revolving door justice,” Barr said. “The results will be predictable. More crime; more victims.”
(“Appointing” is a weird verb here, as these prosecutors are often elected officials.)
While much of the attention on Barr’s tenure as attorney general so far has focused on the Mueller report, there’s a good reason why President Donald Trump appointed him in the first place: when it comes to criminal justice, Barr is a portrait of the kind of “tough-on-crime” prosecutor that, until very recently, has been wildly popular. Near the end of his first stint as Attorney General in 1992, Barr authored “The Case for More Incarceration,” a DOJ report which argued—among other incredibly dumb and wrong things—that “benefits of increased incarceration would be enjoyed disproportionately by black Americans living in inner cities.”
Barr’s hypothesis—that building more prisons and jailing people for longer amounts of time is a good thing—was tested a few years later with the crime bill. As we know now, this just further accelerated the inequities in how the criminal justice system treats white people and people of color, and badly damaged an entire generation of black children.
Despite all of the evidence that we’ve seen to the contrary since then, there’s not much indication that Barr’s views have changed. Back in 2015, he publicly opposed the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a precursor to the FIRST Step Act which included many of the baby steps that the Trump administration and Congress took in that law earlier this year. And although Barr has stressed that he’s committed to implementing these reforms, it’s clear when he attacks the people working to undo the damage he and others caused that his heart is really in locking as many people up as is humanly possible.
Because of the inequality built into both the system and society, it’s hard to envision a world in which the U.S. criminal justice system is “fair.” Still, reform advocates and progressive prosecutors are trying—which is much more than you can say for Barr—and the farther they get away from his policies, the better off they’ll be.