AG pick to reassure senators he backs sentencing overhaul
President Donald Trump's pick to be attorney general will assure lawmakers he supports a recent criminal justice overhaul that eases federal sentencing rules, even though he pushed tough-on-crime policies for decades, a person close to the confirmation process told The Associated Press.
William Barr is likely to face questions during his confirmation hearing Tuesday about his rhetoric during and after his first stint as attorney general in the early 1990s. At the time, Barr argued that the government needed to build more prisons, make penalties more severe and swift and use laws to keep criminals behind bars longer. That would put him squarely at odds with today's reformers.
"The only way to reduce violent crime in our society is to incapacitate chronic violent offenders through a tough policy of incarceration," Barr said in a 1992 speech. "We cannot permit ourselves to backslide into a system of revolving door justice."
Fast forward to next week's hearing and Barr will tell the Senate Judiciary Committee that he supports the recently passed First Step Act, according to the person, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. Trump has touted the law as a bipartisan effort to address concerns that too many Americans were imprisoned for nonviolent crimes as a result of the drug war.
Barr's tough-on-crime thinking was common among law enforcement officials in the early 1990s — the national violent crime rate peaked in 1991 — but the view of many in the criminal justice field has shifted toward rehabilitation instead of incarceration.
Yet advocates fear that Barr's views have not significantly changed. He's seldom discussed criminal justice reform publicly in recent years, but in 2015, Barr joined other former law enforcement officials in signing a letter to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, urging them not to advance a sentencing reform bill. Many of the changes in that legislation were also included in the First Step Act.
Barr's opposition to prior sentencing bills could put him at odds with some senators, including Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who was instrumental in passing the recent criminal justice overhaul.
Still, any such differences seem unlikely to torpedo Barr's nomination. Grassley met with Barr on Wednesday and said he believes Barr's experience "ought to make his nomination very easy." Democrats so far have raised more concerns about Barr's views on executive powers and the Russia investigation than on the sentencing overhaul.
If confirmed, Barr could return to the top Justice Department post by February. Though the First Step Act is now law, its advocates fear Barr could undermine it. The law gives sweeping discretion to the attorney general and his subordinates, including the director of the Bureau of Prisons.
Ames Grawert, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said voting to confirm an attorney general with tough-on-crime views sends a "really mixed message" after passing the First Step Act.
"It seems likely that he still holds those views and unlikely that he's had any major rethinking since the 1990s," Grawert said.
In another speech from his prior service, Barr argued that most violent crimes were committed by repeat offenders who he said fit a typical "profile": They start out committing crimes as juveniles, and "go right on committing crimes" if they are released before trial.
"In fact, the only time that we are sure these chronic offenders are not committing crimes is when they are locked up in their prison cell," Barr said.
Advocates are eager to hear Barr questioned about whether his views have changed since then, and if he believes the prison expansion of recent decades was necessary.
"At a time where states, and to some extent President Trump, are pushing for reform, if we have the Justice Department still trying to pursue 30-year-old policies then people are going to suffer because of that," said Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, or Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which pushed for the First Step Act.
The law reduces the life sentence for offenders with three convictions, or "three strikes," to 25 years and downgrades the mandatory minimum sentence for felony drug offenses from 20 years to 15. Other provisions enhance employment and training opportunities for federal prisoners, give judges more discretion in drug sentencings, and allow about 2,600 federal prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before late 2010 the opportunity to seek a reduced penalty.