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Criminal Justice Leaders Reject Attorney General’s “Tough on Crime” Attitude

by David M. Reutter

After U.S. Attorney General William Barr gave a speech condemning criminal justice reforms, 70 criminal justice leaders signed a statement rejecting his narrative. The signatories included current and former prosecutors, police chiefs, judges and assistant attorneys general.

Barr’s August 12, 2019 speech was presented at the Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police’s 64th National Biennial Conference in New Orleans. He commended police officers for their “special kind of bravery” in “fighting an unrelenting, never-ending fight against criminal predators in our society.”

Barr said progressive district attorneys who style themselves as “social justice” reformers – such as Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins in Boston – are “undercutting police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.” Jurisdictions with such prosecutors, he said, “are headed back to the days of revolving door justice.” That, he added, is a “development that is demoralizing to police and dangerous to public safety.”

Tough-on-crime policies that began during the Reagan administration caused a “steady and sharp drop in violent crime in 1992,” but crime rates started to rise during the Obama administration, Barr claimed. He called for a “full court press” against crime and criminals.

“Barr’s speech is not just an attack on reform of the criminal legal system. Instead, it reflects the Trump administration’s deeper antipathy to instilling greater accountability for our nation’s police forces,” remarked John Pfaff, a Fordham Law School professor.

Following Barr’s comments at the conference, 70 members of Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP) signed a letter to express their disagreement with his “deeply concerning remarks.” They said Barr used “rhetoric that harkens back to the parochial ‘tough on crime’ narrative of past decades that stoked fear and impeded progress.” The historic drop in crime rates over the last quarter century was “not due to a rise in incarceration,” they insisted. Rather, past policies had led the United States to become “home to five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population.”

The “facts support the different approaches and new thinking that AG Barr imprudently maligned,” which are “far more effective and humane ways to respond to mental illness and drug use than with handcuffs and jail cells.” The 70 criminal justice leaders noted that “[d]ata-driven justice, the wise use of limited prosecutorial and law enforcement resources, fiscal responsibility, compassion and respect for human dignity all promote public safety.” Further, a new generation of prosecutors “are using their discretion to prioritize the most serious crimes and move conduct better addressed with public health responses out of the justice system.”

“We felt it was vitally important given the fear driven narrative of his remarks to make clear that current and former prosecutors, law enforcement leaders, and others don’t share his view,” said Miriam Krinsky, a former prosecutor and current executive director of FJP.

The letter-signers noted the First Step Act and other recent changes are moving the country down the “road to meaningful and lasting criminal justice reform,” and that “facts, data and lessons learned from the past” should drive new policies in the criminal justice system.

Indeed, as stated by philosopher and writer George Santayana, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. 



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