United States Attorney General William Barr sees the criminal justice reforms that are coming to states, counties, and municipalities, and he does not approve.
At a speech today in New Orleans at the Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police's 64th National Biennial Conference, Barr bounced through just about every talking point you can imagine arguing for a harsh criminal justice system and complete obedience to authority: Throwing people in prison brought the crime rate down? Check. Disobeying police orders in any way, shape, or form is bad? Check. ("Comply first, and, if warranted, complain later.") Police officers are in danger at every moment of every day? Check. Literally comparing police officers to soldiers going off to war? Check. The drug war is good and saves lives? Check. Insisting that it's more dangerous than ever to be a police officer despite the remarkably low death rates? He covered that, too. References to the Constitution, Bill of Rights, or Fourth Amendment? Uh, nothing on those things, actually.
Barr also had harsh words for a new crop of reform-minded district attorneys who have won elections around the U.S. While these folks had to campaign for voter support, Barr doesn't seem to care about democratically expressed preferences when it comes to law enforcement. In his view, district attorneys should be prosecuting and incarcerating as many offenders as the law allows. From his speech:
There is another development that is demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety. That is the emergence in some of our large cities of District Attorneys that style themselves as "social justice" reformers, who spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.
These anti-law enforcement DAs have tended to emerge in jurisdictions where the election is largely determined by the primary. Frequently, these candidates ambush an incumbent DA in the primary with misleading campaigns and large infusions of money from outside groups.
Once in office, they have been announcing their refusal to enforce broad swathes of the criminal law. Most disturbing is that some are refusing to prosecute cases of resisting police. Some are refusing to prosecute various theft cases or drug cases, even where the suspect is involved in distribution. And when they do deign to charge a criminal suspect, they are frequently seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient. So these cities are headed back to the days of revolving door justice. The results will be predictable. More crime; more victims.
America has the largest prison population in the world, and Louisiana, where Barr gave his speech, has the second-highest incarceration rate in the U.S. While the incarceration rate is dropping nationally, it will take more than a century at the current rate to reach the incarceration levels we saw before the mid-1970s and the start of the federal drug war.
As to the idea that incarceration is the best solution to crime: Louisiana has crime rates similar to Alabama and South Carolina, even though it locks up 50 percent more people than Alabama and 100 percent more than South Carolina.* Putting more people in jail has not made Louisiana any safer.
Voters who have elected reform-minded district attorneys clearly do not feel safer under Barr's policing and prosecuting models. For minorities, the aggressive and illiberal policing condoned by Barr is dangerous regardless of whether they "comply first," as Barr instructed. Recall that Philando Castile was fully cooperating with the police officer who shot and killed him.
And despite what Barr argues, we're not seeing increases in crime rates in places that have passed criminal justice reforms.
This speech was not about public safety, police accountability, or restoring trust between cops and their communities. It was about fear. Barr wants us to fear the police, and more troubling still, he wants the police to fear us.
* This post has been updated to correct the incarceration percentage comparisons between Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina.