‘Wake Up, Mr. Barr: It’s 2019’

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william barr

Attorney General William Barr at his confirmation hearing in January. Photo by Michael Thielen via Flickr

U.S. Attorney General William Barr was right to describe how difficult the job of the police is, and what an important role they play when he addressed the Fraternal Order of Police biennial convention in New Orleans this month.

But unfortunately, he also used the opportunity to lob unfounded criticism at some large-city District Attorneys whom he labels “social justice” reformers.

Barr described these duly-elected District Attorneys as “anti-law enforcement” DAs, who let criminals off the hook and refuse to enforce the law.  He characterized them as “demoralizing” to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety.

Here’s what the nation’s chief law enforcement officer said about them:

Once in office, they have been announcing their refusal to enforce broad swaths of the criminal law. Some are refusing to prosecute various theft cases and drug cases. And when they do deign to charge a criminal suspect, they are frequently seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient. So these cities are headed back to the days of revolving- door justice. The results will be predictable. More crime; more victims.

That’s simply wrong.

Moreover, Barr’s admiration for tough-on-crime policies is profoundly misguided.

I have been studying progressive District Attorneys and their role in criminal justice reform for several years. I am currently in the process of interviewing progressive DAs around the nation.

And I can report first-hand that their primary goal is to enhance public safety by implementing smart, evidence-based policies for reducing crime, recidivism, and victimization.

To say that these prosecutors are anti-law enforcement and that their policies will result in more crime and more victimization simply shows how ill-informed Barr is regarding crime and criminal justice.

Indeed, many prosecutors are electing to not prosecute cases involving small amounts of marijuana and in some cases, minor theft. Others are developing pretrial diversion programs for individuals involved in lower-level crimes and those with mental illness and substance abuse problems.

Progressive DAs are also developing policies that keep offenders out of jail awaiting disposition of their cases.

There is nothing in these policies that will increase crime and victimization.  On the contrary, scientific evidence clearly shows that these will enhance public safety.

Since the facts about progressive DAs do not support Barr’s characterizations, I’m left with the possibility that this is just another attempt to politicize criminal justice policy.

Here’s the translation: Progressive DAs are soft on crime; Trump and Barr are tough on crime.

“Tough on crime” gave us the world’s largest and most expensive criminal justice system, the hallmark of which is the highest rate of correctional control (prison, jail, probation, and parole) and a $1 trillion price tag.

We have prosecuted a war on drugs that any casual observer would admit has been a profound failure, and extraordinarily expensive (another $1 trillion).

We continue to use the criminal justice system as the dumping ground for our inability or refusal to adequately fund public health. Today, 50 percent of those in the justice system are mentally ill, 80 percent have a substance abuse disorder, and the majority has some cognitive dysfunction.

Recidivism measures how many offenders are rearrested after they have been through the criminal justice system at least once before. Today the recidivism rate is 85 percent!

What these vilified District Attorneys are trying to do is implement smart on crime policies that avoid or reduce some of the negative effects of criminal prosecution and pretrial detention, and link individuals to important services such as mental health treatment.

I believe that they are true visionaries who are relying on valid scientific evidence in order to enhance public safety and save money.

Bill Kelly

William R. Kelly

We tried tough on crime back in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.  We know how well that worked.

Mr. Barr, wake up, it’s 2019.

Additional Reading: “A No-Holds-Barred Assault on Prosecutors”

William Kelly is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of four recent books on criminal justice reform. He welcomes comments from readers.

One thought on “‘Wake Up, Mr. Barr: It’s 2019’

  1. It is also interesting to see Barr’s talk as an attack on self-government in majority/minority communities. DA Rachel Rollins, for example, was elected by 80% of the voters. So this isn’t just an issue of what the policies and practices will be, but of who will decide that.

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