Nicholas Katzenbach, who served as U.S. Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson has died at 90. Although Katzenbach was best known for his involvement in contentious civil-rights issues of the era, he also was noted in the criminal justice field for having chaired Johnson’s landmark commission on law enforcement and the administration of justice. Criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie-Mellon University, who served as the commission’s science and technology director, remembers Katzenbach for “displaying the compassion and sensitivity he showed in so many of his other activities. The commission’s report was characterized as having liberal text with conservative bold-face recommendations. But those differences were minuscule compared to today’s polarization.” Katzenbach tried to recruit prominent Republican Thomas Dewey to co-chair the panel, but FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a Dewey friend, thwarted the idea.
The Los Angeles Times noted that Katzenbach “could not win a fight within his own department to control the long-serving, imperious [ ] Hoover, who insisted on wiretapping civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Unable to rein in Hoover, Katzenbach stepped down in 1966 and moved to the State Department as undersecretary.” In a talk to a 2006 conference at the University of Texas on oversight of prisons, Katzenbach commented on the increasing length of prison terms in the U.S. in recent decades, saying that, “indeterminate sentences giving way to fixed sentences without the possibility of parole, the length of the sentences, and the numbers of people convicted of non-violent crimes that suffer such sentences have raised huge issues for the prison system, including the issue of hope. Where in the system is the hope—the hope of the prisoners getting out, the hope of the keepers, the hope that we can do better?”