My friend Radley Balko has a Washington Post column about Trump’s new pick for Attorney General, who may actually be worse than Jeff Sessions when it come to restraining law enforcement, mass incarceration and other civil liberties issues. It kind of puts the lie to Trump’s weak support for the weak criminal justice reform bill that is now likely to die in Congress.
As Balko points out, Trump publicly endorsed the bill but has done nothing to get it passed. Mitch McConnell refuses to bring it up for a vote even though it likely has the votes to pass, but Trump has done nothing to pressure him to do so. He’s even said he might tie the bill to his border wall funding, which would almost certainly kill it. And now he’s nominated William Barr to replace Sessions, whose track record on such issue is absolutely appalling.
Barr didn’t just support some of the worst criminal-justice policies of the 1990s, he wrote and helped implement many of them. While attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, he oversaw the publication of a report called “The Case for More Incarceration.” In 1994, after leaving DOJ, he co-wrote a plan to abolish parole in Virginia. He publicly supported the first, most draconian version of Trump’s “Muslim ban,” and has a long record of anti-immigration advocacy. The ACLU points out that as AG, “Barr ordered telephone companies “to turn over lists of all phone calls from the USA” to dozens of countries under a Drug Enforcement Administration program that was a precursor to the bulk phone metadata program disclosed by Edward Snowden and repealed by Congress in the 2015 USA Freedom Act.”One of the chief aims of the criminal-justice-reform movement is address and reduce racial discrimination in our courts, prisons and police agencies. Barr, like Sessions, doesn’t seem to think such discrimination exists. He told the Los Angeles Times in 1992, “the empirical studies I see suggest that people are treated equally in the system. That is, if a black and a white are charged with the same offense, generally they will get the same treatment in the system, and ultimately the same penalty.” As we’ve extensively documented here, the empirical data overwhelmingly demonstrates the contrary.
Most relevant to Trump and contemporary criminal-justice reform, Barr vocally opposed the 2015 Sentencing Reduction and Corrections Act, the antecedent to the First Step Act. Which means that even as Trump continues to say he supports the First Step Act, he has now appointed three people to be the country’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer — Sessions, Barr and acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker — and all three opposed most or all of the reforms that the bill would enact.
Radley is right when he says, “As with most of Trump’s principles, his allegiance to criminal-justice reform is shallow, negotiable and possibly subject to veto by hosts on Fox News.” The criminal justice reform bill is already pretty weak sauce, only the tiniest little beginning to any real reform that would make our blatantly racist and unjust system more equal and fair. But even that, while it has majority support in the Senate, won’t even get a vote because while Trump publicly pretends to support it, he won’t do anything to get it passed and every other thing he does clearly diminishes the message.