Ordinarily, meetings of the ABA House of Delegates are important for what the House says: that is for the resolutions it adopts. But the meeting conducted in connection with last week’s ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, struck me as important not so much for the actions taken by the House, but for the speeches delivered to it.
Most significant from my perspective were the remarks of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder addressing the need to fix a criminal justice system that is broken to its very core. How else can we explain the fact that, as the Attorney General stated, “The United States today has the highest rate of incarceration of any nation in the world, and the nationwide cost to state and federal budgets was $80 billion in 2010 alone.”
The Attorney General’s speech could prove to be of very great significance, and is worth real attention. He said, for example:
“We need to make sure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter, and to rehabilitate, but not merely to warehouse and to forget.… It’s clear as we come together today that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason.… It’s clear that at a very basic level 20th century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st century challenges. And again, it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast.”
Citing President Obama, the Attorney General went on to say:
“It’s time to ask tough questions about how we can strengthen our communities, how we can support young people, how we can address the fact that young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system as victims, as well as perpetrators. We also must confront the reality that once they are in that system people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers. One deeply troubling report released in February of this year indicates that in recent years, black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 per cent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptable, it is shameful. It is unworthy of our great country; it is unworthy of our great legal tradition.”
The essence of the Attorney General’s proposals are that federal prosecutors narrow their focus to the most serious cases that implicate clear substantial federal interests, that we fundamentally rethink the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug related offenses, that we study measures that have reduced imprisonment in some 17 states, focus on prevention and reentry efforts, and stop imposing unnecessary collateral consequences.
Holder declared that we must no longer settle for for an unjust unsustainable status quo. He urged a frank and constructive dialogue and sweeping systemic changes to serve the interests of justice. He said: “[b]y targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime ‘hot spots,’ and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency, and fairness – we can become both smarter and tougher on crime.”
His speech is well worth reviewing, and you can watch it here:
You can read the Justice Department’s monograph, “Smart on Crime: Reforming The Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century.”
It was a great speech. And, of course, I was delighted to see collateral consequences make the Attorney General’s reform agenda.
Still, I am puzzled by the contradiction between the breadth and depth of the Attorney General’s analysis of the problem and the modest, cautious nature of his proposed reforms. It seems to me that if we are going to meet the Attorney General’s call for fundamental reform of a broken criminal justice system, far more aggressive change will required.
That said, a step in the right direction is to be applauded.