Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Eric Holder’s Criminal Justice Reform

Last week, I took a look at President Obama’s stance on the death penalty vis-à-vis Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (See Obama: Anti-Death Penalty?) Attorney General Eric Holder had disclosed that U.S. Attorneys would pursue a death sentence for the suspected Boston marathon bomber—it seemed like a politically calculated compromise of honestly held beliefs, much like Obama’s position on capital punishment itself.

No one better personifies political compromise than Holder, who probably shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere proxy of the President. 

Holder professes personal opposition to capital punishment, yet has okayed pursuit of death sentences in over 30 criminal cases. His record on the death penalty is complicated to say the least, but his willingness to cede on capital punishment (he vowed to enforce the death penalty at his 2009 confirmation hearing) may have enabled him to chase something unheard of in decades past: somewhat progressive criminal justice reform.

Holder’s record is mixed, and his death penalty concession may be too much for some, but it’s worth noting that he has actually made an effort to treat criminal defendants fairly. This past summer, it was announcement of a Justice Department initiative that effectively turns back the clock on some tough-on-crime laws. The program in question, part of the “Smart on Crime” initiative, involves federal prosecutors circumventing harsh sentencing laws for minor drug crimes. (See Morally Mandatory.)

This week, Holder voiced opposition to firmly entrenched laws in several states that divest those convicted of felonies of the right to vote. His point was simple, yet counter to the prevailing lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key attitude: Preventing people who have committed crimes from voting frustrates the opportunity to reform that they deserveand that decreases recidivism. (See Released from Prison but Barred from the Ballot: Felons and Voting Rights.)

And, in another progressive move, last week Holder declared that the DOJ would respond to the Supreme Court’s summer ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act by “recogniz[ing] lawful same-sex marriages as broadly as possible . . . .” (See the memo he issued here.)

So, while it’s fair to criticize Obama and Holder’s Justice Department in many areas, it’s also reasonable to acknowledge the Attorney General’s recent reform efforts—even if they only come as he steps out the door. (See Will 2014 be Eric Holder’s last year as attorney general?) Whether he stays or leaves, though, Holder has at least started us in the right direction on several criminal justice issues.