Attorney General William Barr intervened to reduce the sentencing recommendation for Donald Trump’s friend Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative. But the very same week he did that, he attacked progressive prosecutors around the country for not being punitive enough toward poor people and people of color. A group of those elected prosecutors pushed back against Barr’s “dangerous and failed” approach with a group statement.
“Critics such as Attorney General William P. Barr seek to bring us back to a time when crime was high, success was measured by how harsh the punishment was, and a fear-driven narrative prevailed,” 39 prosecutors said in the statement.
Barr’s push for harsher sentences—at least for people without money and connections—comes from the idea that the way to stop crime is to lock more people up for longer. But, progressive prosecutors and justice system reformers point out, the facts aren’t with those policies. “My fellow reform-minded prosecutors and I don’t resort to fear, we deal in facts,” said Ramsey County, Minnesota, prosecutor John Choi.
Progressive prosecutors deal in facts, such as the fact that a cash bail system has left nearly half a million unconvicted people in jail at any given time simply because they couldn’t pull together a few thousand dollars to get out—meaning that middle-class and rich people don’t suffer this aspect of the justice system, and the poor people who do often lose their jobs and even their homes because of the time they spend in jail waiting for weeks, months, or even years to even get their day in court.
They deal in facts, such as the fact that, from 2001 to 2010, nearly half of all drug arrests were for marijuana possession, and black people were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, even though white people were as likely to actually use marijuana.
But Barr and his fellow tough-on-crime (except crime committed by rich white guys) types don’t care to deal in those facts. They deal in fear and division, and they are fully on board with racial disparities. Happily, in recent years, there’s been pushback on that, with reform-oriented prosecutors elected in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, and more. Those prosecutors are beginning to move parts of the U.S. to a more just form of justice.
“We know policies based on fear don’t work; they simply deepen divides and promote a false narrative,” the letter from the 39 prosecutors says. “For too long communities were told that locking up poor people for crimes like shoplifting and drug possession would make them safer, when time and time again all it resulted in was the fracturing of families, intergenerational cycles of incarceration, a destabilization of communities and a growing distrust of law enforcement.”