Washington’s new leaders should discard “ideologically-driven” approaches to crime if they want to keep Americans safe, former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday.
Speaking at the launch of a two-day “Smart on Crime” forum at John Jay College in New York, Holder said the success of innovative strategies in areas like policing and corrections during his tenure demonstrated the value of justice system reforms based on research and scientific evidence.
“Ideologically-driven language is not in the best interest of the American people, or in trying to get control of the problems that (current policymakers) say they want to deal with,” he said.
Policy changes instituted so far by the Department of Justice (DOJ) under Attorney General Jeff Sessions are “driven by ideology, policies, and views of policy that are inconsistent with evidence,” and threaten to revive the “discredited” tough anti-crime strategies that prevailed in former decades, said Holder.
Citing Sessions’ recent guidelines to prosecutors to pursue mandatory-minimum sentences even for low-level drug offenses, he observed, “This cookie-cutter approach seems to be going back to a discredited (period) that led to mass incarceration and is not fiscally sustainable.”
The John Jay forum brought together academics, policymakers, practitioners, advocates, and formerly incarcerated individuals to discuss grassroots efforts around the country developed as part of the “Smart on Crime” initiative introduced by the DOJ under Holder in 2013.
Participants heard largely upbeat accounts of the progress of projects underway in courts, police departments and correctional systems, along with calls for changing the “culture” of U.S. criminal justice to reflect the growing bipartisan rejection of the harsh anti-crime measures of the 1980s and 1990s.
Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal told the conference that the success of “accountability courts” that provide counseling or alternatives to long-term incarceration for nonviolent offenders, such as drug courts, family courts and mental health courts in cutting the state’s high recidivism rates helped persuade even conservative state legislators to support justice reform.
Soon after he took office in 2011, Deal said he was told that Georgia, with the 10th largest population in the U.S., had the country’s fourth largest prison population—and it was growing.
“They told me I would need to be prepared to build two new adult prisons—at a cost of $254 million,” he recalled.
The state was already spending $19,000 per prison bed annually, pushing the state Department of Corrections budget to $1.2 billion a year. Most of those behind bars were jailed for non-violent offenses, and many suffered from substance abuse issues.
Spending that amount of money to lock up people for offenses not considered violent would strike most people as wrong, he said.
“Some people said to me that prison reform or criminal justice reform don’t sound like Republican agenda items,” said Deal. “I said it doesn’t matter. It’s costing our state money, and more importantly the lives of many of our citizens.”
‘A Redemption Story’
Deal said his initial proposals to expand the state’s accountability courts passed unanimously in both houses of the Georgia legislature, and bipartisan support for additional changes has continued since. He plans to usher in a new package of criminal justice reforms in 2018.
“Accountability courts are the greatest thing we have seen—people who graduate from these courts are proud of it, not embarrassed by it. It’s religious in nature—a redemption story,” the governor said.
He went on to list other successful legislative measures aimed at changing policies towards the formerly incarcerated, such as “banning the box” which asks prospective job-seekers for state jobs if they had ever been imprisoned, and developing charter schools to help inmates receive high school diplomas.
The need to end job and housing discrimination affecting former inmates was a recurring theme addressed by many of the other speakers, who said it was a crucial step not only in preventing recidivism but in rebuilding families and communities which have been shattered by high incarceration rates.
“We should welcome (the formerly incarcerated) back to our American family so they can contribute to our communities and help build the tax base,” said Daryl Atkinson, a former inmate who was named the first “Second Chance Fellow” at the Department of Justice.
Atkinson recalled that despite receiving a high school diploma while in prison, he was denied federal student aid when he applied to enter college after being released, and was denied admission to five law schools. He finally received a B.A. in political science from Benedict College in Columbia, SC, and a J.D. from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis., MN.
The “culture of redemption” changed his life, he told the forum.
“Imagine if we took that to scale,” he said.
“There are 2.2 million people in prisons and jails today, maybe six or seven million people under supervision and another 75 million who have prison records.”
But the forum’s upbeat approach was shadowed by the barely hidden concern that President Donald Trump’s administration was bent on reversing many of the policies ushered in during the Obama era.
“It doesn’t feel good,” admitted Holder. “We worked hard to put into place measures that were evidence-based.”
He noted that the continued surge in homicide and violent crime rates in cities like Chicago was a cause for concern, but he said Washington only seemed interested in using the problem as an excuse for political grandstanding.
He called on his successor to provide more federal funds to Chicago rather than just angry rhetoric.
“Instead of pointing to (these problems) as an example of all things bad in America, do something,” he said to applause. “That’s your damn job.”
The Smart on Crime strategy, launched by the DOJ over three years ago, encouraged prosecutors, judges and police around the country to focus on developing a smarter use of their resources to ensure that the impact of the justice system was “fair” and unbiased.
It emphasized programs to develop alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes; boost prevention and reentry programs; and strengthen protections for “vulnerable populations,” according to a fact sheet released at the time.
The John Jay forum is co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress and supported by several foundations, including the Coalition for Public Safety; FWD.us; Gideon’s Promise; JustLeadershipUSA; Koch Industries; the Laura and John Arnold Foundation; the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Right on Crime.
The conference continues Wednesday.
TCR news intern Megan Hadley also contributed to this report. Readers’ comments are welcome.