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July 22, 2009

Still more potent talk from AG Holder about federal sentencing reform

Earlier today, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered these remarks at the National Black Prosecutors Association’s Profiles in Courage Luncheon.  Here are portions of his remarks focused on how he handled the botched prosecution of former Senator Ted Stevens and also his commitment to federal sentencing reform (with emphasis in the original):

One of my earliest and most highly publicized acts during my tenure as Attorney General was my decision to dismiss the prosecution of former Senator Ted Stevens.  A review of the facts led me to conclude that the defense team had not been provided with all the required Brady material. Dismissal of the case was my only recourse.  Our adversarial system for criminal trials can only result in justice if the discovery process is conducted by the government fairly, ethically, and according to the rule of law.

The Department of Justice has always been considered above reproach or suspicion in this regard. Regrettably, however, the Stevens case has threatened that trust. That is why I have now ordered a full review of how the Department complies with its discovery obligations.  We will correct any errors and we will see to it, once again, that justice is our primary goal.  That is the hallmark of prosecutors such as you -- good prosecutors.  When we are wrong we will admit our errors.  When we see an affront to justice, we will rectify the problem.  And rather than worry about politics, when we learn of criminal misconduct, we will follow the facts and the law, wherever they may lead us.

I have launched a working group within the Justice Department to review sentencing and corrections policy.  Many of the issues we are looking at, including the structure of federal sentencing, the role of mandatory minimums, the Department’s own charging and sentencing policies, the elimination of the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, and other unwarranted disparities in federal sentencing, have been the source of controversy in our nation for many years.  But controversy should not breed inaction.  As prosecutors, we need to do what is right, no matter what challenges confront us.

The 100-to-1 crack-powder sentencing ratio is a perfect example. Although some may seek to impose the "soft-on-crime" label on anyone who speaks the truth about this issue, we all know that this egregious difference in punishment is simply wrong.  I have seen first-hand the effect that disparities in drug sentences have had on our communities.  In my career as a prosecutor and as a judge, I saw too often the cost borne by the community when promising, capable young people sacrificed years of their futures for non-violent offenses.  Let me be clear: the Department of Justice will never back down from its duty to protect our citizens and our neighborhoods from drugs, or from the violence that all-too-often accompanies the drug trade. But we must discharge this duty in a way that protects our communities as well as the public’s confidence in the justice system.  Our goal is quite simple: to ensure that our sentencing system is tough, predictable and fair.

July 22, 2009 at 06:17 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Ummm, he's been living in some dream-land if he think DoJ has been above reproach any time since the early 90s at the latest, possibly much earlier.

I know there was a time that FBI agents were trusted implicitly as well, but that veneer too has cracked.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 22, 2009 6:49:12 PM

He said what he must say in that setting.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jul 22, 2009 7:15:32 PM

No government (or any other) agency is entirely above reproach. The only realistic question is whether the agency performs its duties in a way that by-and-large, compared against historical standards, is praiseworthy.

When the defense bar, the judiciary and the Congress are "above reproach," they will have standing to use that as the standard. Don't hold your breath.

Marc -- These speeches are carefully arranged and orchestrated for the administration to get out a particular message at a particular time. It is no coincidence that Holder's speech comes just as Conyers is getting ready to eviscerate crack sentences.

As for Holder, I wonder if he'll ever give a speech praising the Department's lawyers for getting a CONVICTION.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 22, 2009 8:45:26 PM

Bill,

DoJ is not charged with getting convictions, they are charged with doing justice. Simply because justice often entails getting a conviction doesn't mean that is something to be proud of. Especially with the way so many of a prosecutor's customers deliver themselves up in a box ready for a bow.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 22, 2009 10:27:56 PM

Soronel --

"DoJ is not charged with getting convictions, they are charged with doing justice. Simply because justice often entails getting a conviction doesn't mean that is something to be proud of."

I would think that doing justice is always something to be proud of.

"Especially with the way so many of a prosecutor's customers deliver themselves up in a box ready for a bow."

I'm not exactly sure what you mean here, but if it's that a lot of defendants are obviously guilty, and thus that convicting them doesn't take that much work, I agree. But that is not uniformly the case -- when, for example, you get your witnesses murdered or intimidated into silence by the defendant's drug gang.

I just don't believe Holder can't find a single conviction worth public praise.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 23, 2009 12:53:08 AM

I just don't believe Holder can't find a single conviction worth public praise.

That is absolutely ludicrous, especially given that Holder is a former United States Attorney himself. The DOJ gets convictions every day. They are, so to speak, unremarkable.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jul 23, 2009 8:58:04 AM

Bill, you need to take a deep breath. The DOJ website daily posts press releases trumpeting the latest plea deal or conviction. There's no shortage of crowing about convictions.

Posted by: anon | Jul 23, 2009 10:02:14 AM

From his bumbling first step when he declared his countrymen a nation of cowards, Holder has not had my confidence.

Posted by: mjs | Jul 23, 2009 10:29:58 AM

mjs, given the context of the "nation of cowards" comment -- namely that Americans seem overly skittish when it comes to speaking candidly about racial issues -- what exactly was wrong with Holder's observation?

Anything Holder does to shift the DOJ from a career-boosting conviction machine that preys on an overly criminalized citizenry toward a truth-seeking, justice-inspired organization will be greatly appreciated...but I'm not optimistic.

Posted by: John K | Jul 23, 2009 2:10:38 PM

anon --

You cannot seriously believe that something's getting posted on the DOJ website is even remotely similar to having the AG give a big speech about it.

Marc --

It is true that many convictions are unremarkable (except perhaps to John K, who has yet to mention one that wasn't a product of facsism). It is likewise true that some convictions are remarkable indeed. If you know of one single instance in which Holder has given a major speech praising his prosecutors for getting one, please let me know.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 23, 2009 8:41:30 PM

John K --

One would have a hard time believing that Americans are "overly skittish," or skittish at all, in talking about race, given today's non-stop, wall-to-wall coverage of the allegedly racist disorderly conduct arrest of Prof. Gates in Cambridge. If you just turn on the tube, you'll see, not skittishness, but an army of people who can't blather on enough about it.

But even if there were skittishness, since when is that cowardice? Has your dumbing down of language actually come to the point that you think they're the same thing?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 23, 2009 8:56:39 PM

'facism' I like it, split the difference between racism and factism. Not that factism is a word, but I like it anyway.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 23, 2009 9:43:32 PM


John K--

Speaking candidly about race has historically meant a one-sided litany of white injustices.

Posted by: mjs | Jul 24, 2009 1:10:55 PM

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