William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, will support the new First Step Act that reforms federal sentencing practices and prison rehabilitation programs, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Barr, who was known as a hard-liner on crime during his previous stint as Attorney General in the administration of President George H. W. Bush, said he had “no problem with the approach of reforming the sentencing structure” as outlined in the law passed by Congress and signed by Trump in late December.
Barr argued that it was unfair to compare the Justice Department’s approach to criminal justice in the early 1990s to the situation today, the Washington Post reports.
“In 1992, when I was attorney general, the violent crime rates were the worst in American history, the sentences were extremely short,” Barr said, noting average sentences for rape were three years, and murder, just five to seven. “The system had broken down, and through a series of administrations, the laws were changed.”
“I understand that things have changed since 1992,” Barr told Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), a leading supporter of the First Step Act.
Barr also said it would be an “abuse of power” for Trump to intervene in an investigation he “has a stake in,” the Associated Press reports. Barr told senators he believes such an action would be a breach of the president’s constitutional duties and could violate federal law depending upon the circumstances.
Barr was responding to questions from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in light of a memo he wrote criticizing special counsel Robert Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice investigation.
Barr has said the memo was intended to be narrowly focused on one of Mueller’s reported interpretations of obstruction. Barr also says his memo was based solely on public reporting and not any confidential information.
Barr said he doesn’t believe special counsel Robert Mueller “would be involved in a witch hunt.” Trump has repeatedly used that term to criticize the special counsel’s investigation and has suggested he is being targeted by the Justice Department. Mueller is investigating potential ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.
Barr told senators he would look into how an FBI counterintelligence investigation was opened into whether Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia’s interests. Barr said he never had heard of the FBI opening such an investigation on an U.S. president.